Without any effort, we remain tethered to the Earth. Through, what very quickly after birth becomes an automated body function, we take in breath. In many respects, we live without really trying very hard to do so. As we age, two seemingly unrelated phenomena occur: we accumulate more and more baggage/emotional dross and we become inured to the marvels offered by just being alive. Gravity locates its characters in a setting that strips away the essentials that we take for granted every day in order to expose the pulsating, primal drives that often get buried beneath a numbing sense of apathy.
The basic premise of the film is that Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first mission in space, and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), must fight to survive after the debris from a destroyed satellite decimates their shuttle and sets them adrift. What viewers may not understand from the marketing materials that have been releases is that this is not a “floating around in space” movie. Once it gets going, Gravity is a non-stop, heart-pounding thriller.
However, the real crux of the film is Kowalski and Stone’s vastly divergent responses to, not so much the crisis, but life. Stone is mourning, withdrawn, and disconnected, all business and oblivious to the purity of the wonder that is surrounding her. She is weightless with the expanse of space as her playground and the Earth a glowing globe beneath her, and yet, at the film’s open, the entirety of her being is focused on fighting intermittent nausea and the tool right in front of her. She is oblivious the the singular miracle of her circumstances. Whereas Kowalski is engaged with – and savoring – every moment of freedom that the jet pack the engineers are having him test affords him.
The pair function as archetypes as much as characters. They symbolize oppositional forces: yin and yang, the natural expansion and contraction of the universe, and spiritually, she stands in for a life-providing mother Earth and he a watchful, guiding, loving, though slightly irreverent, Father Deity. Kowalski is vital and life-affirming, Stone depleted and stricken by a devastating loss that she has been unable to move on from. The casting plays directly into audience expectations. We buy Clooney as the charming, devil-may-care astronaut and Bullock as the introverted, earthy and relatable scientist.
Director Alfonso Cuaron demonstrates a remarkable understanding of his audience by selecting Ed Harris to voice Houston, Mission Control. We may not be fully aware of it in the moment, but when we hear Harris’ voice, we are subconsciously taken back to the inception of the Space Race, as well as the perils of exploration. The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 dance in the corner of our minds, and we trust that this is a voice of authority, even as the sense of tension and danger is pulled taut. In the opening sequence, Cuaron creates a comfortable environment, drawing us into a hypnotic state of placidity, only to shatter it. Additionally, the periodic homages to 2001 attune us to some of the larger ideas that the film is exploring. Indeed, every directorial choice Cuaron makes is with purpose, which, as much as we assume is always the case, is in fact a relatively rare quality in a filmmaker.
Gravity is an extraordinary cinematic triumph, and there can be no doubt that the technological advances that this film has achieved will act as an invitation to other innovators to match, or exceed, its achievements.This is the most effective and purposeful use of both CGI and 3D technology that we have seen in years. What’s extraordinary about Gravity, though, is that it has not only found new ways to implement those tools (the specific details of the methods deserve their own article, and can’t be enumerated here), but more importantly, they are utilized in the service of story.
The CGI creates a sense of reality, rather than a world of imagination, helping us to give over to an acute sense of danger. The 3D truly does draw one further into the experience, and not just as a bit of showmanship, but because Cuaron wants this, needs this to be a subjective experience in order for it work. Because Gravity isn’t about watching a story unfold passively, it’s fundamentally about becoming an active participant in the narrative by applying your own life experience, imaging yourself in the circumstances, and, in doing so, landing on a deeper understanding of your own perception of the true nature of survival.
The technical innovations are there, but they aren’t what elevates Gravity from a diverting romp into an spellbinding thematic exercise. Rather it is Cuaron’s expert use of the camera, the sound design, the actors – all of the instruments of the medium – to express a universal truth. It’s about the depth of the film’s overall impact, rather than the particulars of the plot or strength of the dialog.
It may be challenging for some to untangle the masterful use of the tools, and the sheer power of the journey, from the elementary and occasionally on-the-nose nature of the dialogue and backstory, though. These are representational characters whose function is to communicate broad concepts, rather than act as dimensional, nuanced, complex humans. In many ways that’s not only okay, but the correct choice for this particular film. The simplicity allows for clarity in terms of what Gravity is seeking to impress upon the viewer; perhaps more accurately, the conversation that it is inviting the audience to participate in. We are not bogged down with trying to unweave knotty motivations here; they are as translucent as an icy blue ocean.
As such, the film becomes accessible to as broad an audience possible. Culturally, we occasionally need sparser tales occupied by archetypal characters to communicate fundamental ideas about life, death, and the human condition. In this way, Gravity is a film that is brimming with paradoxes. It is as structurally complex and technically, visually, aurally layered as the characters and story are simplistic. Some may find that the periodically overt dialogue and cinematic cues dance the line of sophomoric, and prefer the stark and nearly wordless Robert Redford survival tale All is Lost. However, Gravity isn’t a film about avoiding death; it is a film about choosing life.
Cuaron has crafted a beautiful, mythic film that is deceptive in its almost “simple-enough-for-a-five-year-old” dialogue and iconography; recall the poems, fairytales, and lyrical rhymes from childhood and how they remain with us. Their lessons, folksy as they may be, linger, because we resonate with the sage gems hidden in the straightforward tales. When stories are serving as allegories, parables, or a metaphorical purpose, as Gravity does, the focus is not so much refinement of the spoken words, as it is the totality of the created impression. Gravity has a wealth of meaning embedded in the imagery, if one chooses to engage.
The extended sequences that Cuaron has long-since been known for are there, but they do not merely exist to dazzle – though dazzle they do – they serve to provoke. Without treading into spoiler territory, I will say that there is one harrowing sequence in which the camera veers between a Godlike objective, and Stone’s subjective point-of-view. We meld with her, taking in the shocking vision from inside her spacesuit as she goes hurdling through the abyss. The film volleys between the two vantage points through the remainder of the film, but this is the first time Cuaron utilizes the technique.
It’s a gorgeous technical feat, but more than that, the transition from inside and outside her perspective serves a crucial story purpose. The moment demands that Stone take the reigns in order to secure her survival. She can either entirely surrender her will, and die, or take responsibility and fight to keep breathing – literally. We see her POV in the moment in which she decides to live, because that is probably the first time, in a long time, that Stone herself has consciously and acutely experienced the fullness of her own existence – just as it is in danger of being wiped out.
There are a number of visual metaphors in the film. Several of them, explicitly or not, point to the theme of rebirth, but there are others that are not quite as clear cut. The debris that stalks these characters, and that created the catastrophic accident that acts as the film’s inciting incident, for example, can be interpreted as just what it is: a life-threatening, merciless, killing force.
Or, one could reflect upon the fact that there is indeed a very real danger presented by the wreckage that we have left in space from abandoned space stations and satellites over the years. In that case the imagery becomes about the tendency that we as humans have to abdicate responsibility on a global scale, to our own detriment. As seen through a more individual, psychological lens, the debris can come to represent the things that we abandon, ignore, push aside or otherwise simply don’t deal with in our lives, and how they often return, unexpectedly, to wreak havoc. Either way, it is a sharp lesson in the dangers of failing to be accountable.
Ultimately, as much as Gravity takes the viewer on a pulsating, visceral ride, it invites us into the experience. Stone and Kowalski become both symbolic figures, and blank canvases for us to project our own inner-life onto, and as such, each of us will have a slightly different interpretation of the film’s deeper meanings and themes. For some, this may just serve us an invigorating, seat-gripping space thriller. For others, Gravity is a story about relinquishing the shackles of whatever particular brand of tragedy, no matter how severe, that life has wrought upon you, so that you can see your existence for what it brings you, rather than what it has done to you.
For me, this is not a complex character portrait, but rather a multifaceted cinematic fable about the most primal, most elemental facets of human nature. It’s as much about the will to survive as it is the death impulse. “Do you want to live?” Gravity asks of the viewer. Yes live, as in breathe oxygen and sink your feet on the ground each day. More importantly, though, do you want to live as in take full ownership of, full responsibility for your life? Are you willing to really feel and experience every terrifying, resplendent, transformative, breathtaking and gut wrenching moment of it? Are you willing to connect with another? Not just float in the same environment with people, as if they are slightly irritating gnats that happen to surround you, but rather bring the fullness of your experience to them and accept the fullness of theirs, even knowing that connection can end in devastating loss? Do you want to be a passive observer of your own existence, halfheartedly watching as it drifts past you? Or do you choose to embrace the horror, revel in the sublime, and become an active agent in your destiny? Do you want to live?