Space is the main character in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, a film that captures, better than any film has up to this point, the sheer, inhospitable, pants-shitting vastness of space. The opening title cards describe the regular, 200-degree temperature swings that characterize the area just outside the Earth’s atmosphere, where there is no sound, no water, no oxygen, no Doritos Locos Tacos… concluding, “life in space is impossible.” And for the next 90 minutes, Cuarón proceeds to drive home what it feels like to be a human being who ventures too far outside our designated play area when God yanks the choke chain.
There are films for which you have to suspend disbelief, and then there are films like Gravity, where you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s only a movie to keep from hyperventilating into your Milk Duds. It’s… stressful. In a good way.
Not too long ago I went to the San Francisco Planetarium, where I watched their 3D film about space projected onto the big oval ceiling above the small theater. Narrated by Sigourney Weaver, the closest thing we have to the actual voice of mother nature, it starts with aerial footage of the Academy of Science roof, and expands farther and farther out into space, the solar system and beyond. The farther out it gets, somewhere around the time you get to multiple galaxies with hundreds of trillions of stars, it begins to produce a deep existential dread, the brain pain of trying to fathom the unfathomable, the inherent loneliness of existence, and you just wish Sigourney would shut up so you could pour yourself a scotch and complain to your bros about Miley Cyrus. Gravity harnesses that dread and makes it the antagonist.
It’s brilliantly simple. Turns out, the scariest thing about space isn’t aliens or superbugs or wormholes to hell or Michael Shannon, it’s space itself. Unfathomably vast, empty, inhospitable space. When you think about it, aliens are just our way of giving the constant, vague antagonism of the infinite universe a finite form, an adversary we can understand. Sort of like assigning the cruel randomness of history to some insidious conspiracy. If we can’t control something, we create a fantasy where at least someone is.
Cuarón’s main challenge in all this is just making us believe that we’re actually watching people float in space. He does it, almost seamlessly. Can someone check if this was actually filmed up there? When we’ve already seen photo-real animations and bullet-time and everything else, it’s rare that you find yourself asking “how’d they do that?!” The answer is so often “I dunno, computers?” that you eventually stop asking. That Gravity, in 2013, can make you wonder how it was made with almost every shot, is an incredible achievement. It manages to punch you in the nuts with reality and make you believe in magic all at the same time.
One obvious but important aspect of Gravity (and the basis for the title, really) is the way it shits all over our conception of space walking as “floating” in space, as if space is some giant aquarium. The truth Gravity drives home is that being in space isn’t floating at all, it’s falling. You’re far enough from the gravitational pull of round Earth that “down” becomes a circle, and you just fall in an endless loop, and even if it doesn’t always feel like it, you’re going REALLY, REALLY FAST. Like, thousands and thousands of miles an hour fast. Colliding with any of the crap
floating falling around up there is catastrophic, and you better strap yourself to something and hold on tight if you don’t want to fall off into infinite space, where you will surely be firmly, inexorably f*cked. Cuarón’s constantly floating, bouncing, twisting 3D camera perspective and the atmospheric score capture it beautifully, and it’s as tense and terrifying as a colonoscopy.
The characterizations of the two leads (the only characters, really) are what you might call “traditional.” George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, a lovable, smooth-talking, know-it-all rogue. A real George Clooney type, you might say. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone has a cutesy boy’s first name fit for a tough, independent-minded tomboy whose dad wanted a boy. A real Sandra Bullock-type, you might say. There’s also a dream-sequence scene that’s sure to piss some people off.
I hate to review other reviews, but some are calling some of Gravity‘s conventional elements a failure of writing. It’s not. A few well set up and adequately-explored traditional story elements in the context of an otherwise wildly-original movie are not bad writing. True originality isn’t avoiding anything you’ve seen before just because you’ve seen it before, that’s just being a reactionary. If you’re always worried about bucking tradition, you’re still letting tradition control you. Cuarón isn’t concerned with experimental storytelling, he’s concerned with visceral storytelling. Gravity isn’t an art film, and neither is it some Avatar movie built on the chassis of older blockbusters designed to show off the shiny paintjob of newfangled special effects. It has amazing effects, but they’re a means to an end. That end being SPACE, MOTHERF*CKER! IT’S SCARY!
It’s always been so, Cuarón and company are just the best so far at making it feel that way.