Star Trek’s optimistic vision of interstellar travel is said to have inspired countless young people to pursue careers in space exploration. Indeed, Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, has specifically cited the original television series as an inspiration.
With Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón has crafted a science fiction film that has precisely the opposite effect. Not only did Gravity make me never want to become an astronaut, it even made me hesitant to look up at the night sky outside Westdale Theatre.
The film opens with a title card that declares, “Life in space is impossible.” For the next 90 minutes, astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) desperately attempt to defy this proposition. During a spacewalk, the two are separated from their shuttle by a fusillade of debris and sent careening into darkness. Although space is a void, however, it is nonetheless filled with dangers. Suffocation, incineration, freezing and drowning each come to threaten the duo.
Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki film the wayward astronauts with a breathtakingly mobile camera. As in Cuarón’s previous film, the wrenching dystopian thriller Children of Men (2006), these sweeping camera movements are also coupled with long, seemingly unbroken takes. Gravity’s opening sequence is so dynamic that it makes Orson Welles’ famous tracking shot at the beginning of Touch of Evil (1958) look like an amateur home video.
Sadly, Gravity’s script is not quite as fluid as its cinematography. The astronauts’ struggle for survival contains a few predictable moments, and both characters seem a tad too archetypal. Kowalski is an unflappable veteran on his last mission, while Stone is a nervous new recruit, which makes them an unfortunately clichéd combo.
There are several haunting scenes in the film where spacecraft are silently shredded in the vacuum of space. During these moments, I began to wish that Gravity would abandon Stone and Kowalski’s clunky, faux-profound dialogue altogether and transform into a silent film.
That said, in her most compelling moments, Stone does succeed in channeling the relentlessness of science fiction cinema’s greatest heroine, Ellen Ripley. The two women also seem to prefer a similar wardrobe underneath their spacesuits.
In addition to continuing Children of Men’s virtuoso use of long takes, Gravity carries forward that film’s preoccupation with ideas of fertility and rebirth. In Gravity’s eeriest shot, Stone’s levitating body is clearly posed to resemble a fetus, complete with an insulated hose in place of the umbilical cord. Later imagery likewise suggests a life form crawling out of the primordial soup.
Despite its imperfections, Gravity’s screenplay resonates with such visuals. The astronauts’ plight vividly demonstrates how the desolation of outer space can reduce human beings to a childlike state of clumsiness and vulnerability.
Yet, Cuarón complicates this reading by setting up a fascinating tension between the powerlessness and the agency of the astronauts. The debris that strands the pair is the result of an accidental chain reaction, and Stone was driven into the space program by a similarly fluky personal tragedy. These events point towards a random and uncontrollable cosmos. At the same time, however, they are able to repeatedly stave off death through careful problem solving and deliberate action, which suggests a universe ruled by order, not chaos.
The success of Gravity certainly owes little to serendipity. In an interview with Wired, Cuarón revealed that production took an arduous four and a half years. Audiences should be grateful for his dedication. Cuarón has delivered a technical masterpiece that is so suspenseful and intense that it has a physical impact.
You don’t just watch Gravity; you feel its pull.