by Paul Zuckerman
In space, no one can hear you when you scream.
Wait. That’s a tagline from another movie. In Gravity, however, the screaming by Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) can be heard loud and clear over the intercom (and the movie theater’s speakers). And who could fault Stone — suddenly cast adrift, spinning around in outer space, lifeline ripped away, tumbling through the dark void, unable to see any marker — what could be more terrifying than that?
So begins Gravity, an incredibly suspenseful and exciting roller coaster movie by director Alfonso Cuarón. The movie’s actual tagline is “life in space is impossible,” and Gravity repeatedly and graphically demonstrates why that is so.
The plot of the film is straightforward and simple — an accident in space damages an American space craft and kills all but two of the crew — mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and scientist Stone. Kowalski is all but unflappable, despite the dire circumstances — cool, calm, collected. As mission commander, his reactions may appear stereotypical but exactly what one would hope for in the commander during a crisis. Stone, though, is on her first trip to space, and she reacts the way the average member of the audience likely would —scared and vulnerable, hyperventilating, throwing up from her vertiginous spinning through space. And she is carrying a great deal of personal emotional baggage that hampers her ability, and desire, to survive.
The three basic conflicts in all stories are: Man against man, man against nature, and man against self. (Yes, in those pre-antediluvian days when this lesson was imparted to me, “man” represented the whole human race. But, I am not sure that any other term in English fully conveys the universal nature of the concepts. Woman against woman? Man against woman? Woman against man? All of those phrases begin to convey sexual nuances. Human against human? As opposed to aliens from space? Person against person? Too impersonal sounding. One against oneself? Too reflective. But I digress.)
To return to my train of thought — this movie is not about man against man, which is what space movies usually deal with; if anything, the astronauts need to cooperate to survive. Rather, this movie fits squarely in the man against nature school, the Jack London “To Build a Fire” school; man surviving against the harshest forces thrown at him by an uncompromising and uncaring universe, and, no question here, this movie is taking on the universe. Yet, while the battle against nature is exciting, there is another story — man against self — that gives the movie resonance, as Stone’s physical struggle to stay alive mirrors her struggle to regain her emotional health. Indeed, Stone is a far cry from the cold and unemotional astronauts of 2001-A Space Odyssey, which remains the touchstone for all movies about space travel.
Movies (and stories in general) about space travel typically are science fiction. Starting with 2001, they tend to be more informed about the realities of space travel, but they still exist in universes with aliens, faster-than-light speed, force fields and the like. And, more often than not, the physical laws of the universe are ignored. How many times have we heard the Starship Enterprise whoosh past us in soundless space? There have been a handful of movies based upon factual circumstances involving space exploration — The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 are the two that readily spring to mind, but, The Right Stuff is more about the history of the program. Gravity, on the other hand, is a fictional non-science story about space, a very small sub-genre. The only other movie that may fit into that category that this reviewer can remember was 1969’s Marooned, which starred Gregory Peck.
Unlike Marooned and Apollo 13, which often broke away from the crew in space, Gravity remains wholly focused on the astronauts in space and their attempt to save themselves; cut adrift (as is the audience) from the earth. At once, the audience (and Stone) is confronted by an almost paradoxical dichotomy — an agoraphobic sense of being lost in the great openness of outer space; while a claustrophobic sense of being trapped in space suits, with limited oxygen. In one amazing scene, Cuarón captures this dichotomy by panning the camera so the audience is first looking out at space directly and suddenly is in the spacesuit with Stone, looking out.
Much has been said about the special effects, and the extraordinary thirteen-minute tracking shot that opens the movie— such tracking shots are extraordinary due to their difficulty in filming but downright astonishing given that it takes place in an entirely alien environment. And the director and company deserve the plaudits for the new heights to which Gravity takes us. And while 3D movies are often gimmicky, it is not the case here. The 3D (and presumably IMAX format as well)) enhances the movie, immersing the audience in space. The 3D works to create a physical environment for the audience that goes hand-in-hand with the singular focus on space, with no cutaways to Mission Control or earth, which would have destroyed the isolation of the astronauts.
But the heart of the movie is Sandra Bullock, lovely and appealing as ever. Stone is emotionally and physically vulnerable; and while Stone appears to be hard-edged at first, Bullock takes the audience with her on her journey to save herself. Definitely recommended.