Published Sep 07, 2013Considering the auteur trajectory of Alfonso Cuarón's career, tackling tales of human futility in an effort to understand or communicate the spark of hope or passion that keeps us moving forward, the metaphorically titled Gravity is exceedingly apt, encapsulating basic metaphysical truths in their purest form. Though "gravity" isn't present for the majority of this mesmerising space spectacle, what it represents — an opposing force against which humans must struggle to remain upright — is omnipresent.
The basic premise, which is really all anyone needs to, or should, know going in, finds Medical Engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and experienced astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) encountering an emergency while repairing a space station.
It's a sequence tailor-made for cinema history, utilizing an illusory, protracted single take to capture a relatively banal repair situation, one where Stone does mechanical work and Kowalsky oversees, floating around in space, telling Houston stories about his conquests back on Earth. It's reminiscent of Cuarón's work in Children of Men but, considering the intense layering of visual effects and his seamless transition between perspectives, going inside spacesuit helmets and flying around the characters to immerse us in the experience, it takes the idea of spectacle to a new cinematic level. Once a warning comes that debris is flying from a decimated Russian space station, the action and kineticism take hold, using the same engrossing visual style to capture a terrifying and intense situation that literally sends chills down the spine.
As the debris destroys the space shuttle, catapulting Stone into space, where her panicked breathing threatens to deplete her oxygen, there's a constant sense of basic human terror exacerbated by our embedded psychological fear of being, or dying, alone. Cuarón is ever-conscious of this story about a space disaster as a metaphor for rudimentary human anxiety.
Though Gravity is ultimately a tale of our tendency to fight for life, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, space as a breathtaking and eternal void from which man emerged — and may eventually succumb — is presented as a representation of our basic fears and fantasies, titillating us with answers about the nature of our existence while also representing our insignificance in its infinity.
Because of this, the many problems and struggles that Stone and Kowalsky encounter in simply trying to survive connect on a deeper level than the relatively superficial characterizations would normally allow — Kowalsky is a lonely bachelor with false bravado and Stone is an ambitious loner scarred by the death of a child. It's also a testament to Cuarón's ability to make a situation tactile and experiential, leaving his audience gasping as these astronauts fly by various space station protrusions, trying to grab on for sheer life.
Some of the imagery — a photo of a dead astronaut's family and an image of Bullock folded up in the foetal position—is slightly too obvious for its own good, tugging a bit overtly at heartstrings while referencing 2001: A Space Odyssey, but because the experience of Gravity is so intense and engrossing, it's easy to overlook. Visually, there's clarity and inherent realness to everything — the backdrop of Earth and destruction of the space station are some of the most captivating visual effects yet captured on film — that make it easy to suspend disbelief, even though, when you step back, the core story and compounding number of issues are quite ludicrous.
That Sandra Bullock (an actress that often plays it safe as a surly, sarcastic social misfit) is able to connect with core annihilation anxieties in such a subtle, touching manner, never illogically dramatizing her experiences for an audience of endless, empty space, also helps make everything hypnotic. The story doesn't allow much traditional character development, seeing as everyone is imperilled and reacting for most of the runtime, which makes her ability to project the idea of someone mostly defeated by life rushing through everything to avoid introspection notable and, more importantly, humanizing.
It's true that Gravity is the sort of film that doesn't stand up well to scrutiny, having some contrivances and metaphors that are far too overt, at times, but it would be difficult to deny that the experience of seeing it inspires a cornucopia of emotions that reminds us what it's like to feel alive.