The film Star Trek (2009) opens with a federation starship being attacked by an enemy ship. During the attack, a hole is blown through the ship as a crew member is walking by. She tries in vain to hold on while screaming hysterically, but physics win out and she sucked into the void. We last see her flailing around noiselessly in an exterior shot of the ship. The scope of the battle is so large that she’s barely noticeable on the screen; a nameless ensign adrift in the depths of the cosmos. For a film with as many memorable visuals as Star Trek, this is one that stood out in my mind. It’s not a particularly thrilling moment (quite the opposite in fact). It’s horrifically stark: whatever emotion we’re supposed to feel is as fleeting as the scene itself. Oddly, a film that uses outer space as a site of fantasy begins with a scene expressing its cold reality. This is a concept rarely touched upon in film. One the few to do so is Gravity.
Gravity manages to take a story as simple as ” hero gets lost in a foreign land ” and take it to its logical extreme. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban), the film focuses on bio-medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) who’s first space trip to the Hubble Telescope goes awry when debris from a Russian anti-satellite test results in massive destruction near Earth’s orbit.
This results in the destruction of the shuttle and most of its crew, leaving Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), to figure out how to survive.
As in real life, being in space is portrayed as oddly both expansive and claustrophobic The promos for Gravity show an extreme close-up of Sandra Bullock. The camera slowly pulls out as we see her spacesuit and her tumbling through space. This frightening visual encapsulates the tone of the film perfectly. Most non-fantasy films dealing with space travel (Apollo 13, Armageddon) never deal with what being in space is like. It’s just a cool backdrop. The characters rarely reflect on space. If they do, it’s only to say how beautiful it is. In this film, outer space is portrayed as honestly as possible. It’s nothingness. It’s cold (we see Bullock’s breath while in a vessel). Despite not being explicitly a horror film, Gravity manages to create an unnerving atmosphere when it wants to. Imagine being lost in space? Not only will you die obviously, but your body will forever be adrift (a fear played with by the promos of Stone tumbling in space). The only object of ” beauty ” in the film is the Earth, which is maddeningly out of reach for Stone.
Because the protagonist is explicitly NOT an astronaut, a large amount of drama comes m how she’s as disoriented as the audience would be in that situation. This is illustrated when the shuttle’s crew is introduced. Kowalski is casually reflecting on personal stories and the beauty of the Earth, whereas Stone is too uncomfortable to take her eyes off her work.
Stone’s space suit becomes indicative of Stone’s limitations. Rather than just being a costume, it’s significance is constantly alluded to. She’s constantly worried about its oxygen supply. Several shots are taken from inside the helmet so we can see her limited vision. Her suit is her tether; keeping her alive and also hindering her. This is the film’s overlying theme: the tag line states “Don’t let go”. For a film about space, freedom is seemingly unobtainable.
As much as I hate the term, this film could be accurately described as ” hauntingly beautiful “. The camera (which I’m not quite sure existed given all the CGI) manages to take on the properties of the film’s environment perfectly. We are rarely given a sense of direction as the camera slowly drifts through each scene. It obviously works to allow the audience the feeling of space itself. As mentioned before, this at times whimsical, but more often purposely disorienting. This film also bears the signatures of its director, who is an expert at extremely long mobile takes (as seen in films like Children of Men (2006). The introduction of Stone and Kowalski, the revelation of the debris, and their separation from the shuttle all takes place in ONE continuous shot. Holy shit. The film makes sure to almost never separate us from the action, so we get the sense we’re in just as much trouble as the protagonists are. This is the type of filmmaking that almost makes me tear up.
Given that this is a film with only two principal actors (with the subjective perception of one), Gravity is extremely intimate despite its vast backdrop. Bullock’s acting serves the film, but I can see people having mixed reactions. Bullock’s niche in Hollywood has always been “tough chick who’s secretly feminine” or “smart chick who’s secretly feminine”. She’s the “anti-glamor” girl. As such, when she’s in vulnerable mode, it’s much more understated than say, Julia Roberts. This keeps her character from being a damsel-in-distress IN SPACE. This also means that she might not have the overt reactions some audiences need to feel the emotional weight of the film. Personally, I think her performance fits the character’s personality. A tragedy in Stone’s past has made her a checked-out workaholic. Her job is the only thing that she lives for, which even factors into how she got stranded in the first place. When she deals with stress, it’s more about nervous tics than obvious emotion. For example, one of the most terrifying moments in the film occurs when she gets caught in the debris storm while working on a spacecraft. Her reaction? She ignores it and begins humming to herself awkwardly. That is a brilliant way for us to feel scared for her without diminishing the character. She’s a ball of nerves but she doesn’t break down, which makes us root for her.
Gravity is one of the few films I would call beautiful in every respect. The effects are gorgeous. The acting is moving. The story is simple yet powerful. I honestly can’t see how someone couldn’t like this film. I guess the only reasons not to see it is if you get motion sickness ( seriously ) or if you just hate Sandra Bullock. Otherwise, see this film.