Humans love space. Our entire history demonstrates a remarkable fascination with first the sky, then the stars, then the many millions of things in between those stars. That which lies just out of reach fascinates us, for some reason. Gravity, the latest film from virtuoso Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, is a potent reminder of just why we love space, dressed up as a disaster film.
It’s a great film. With some qualifications.
Remember when Avatar came out and everyone freaked out about 3D and technology and then it wasn’t even that amazing? GRAVITY is that movie.
— Ryan Brown (@ryanbrown23) October 4, 2013
Also Gravity is that movie as in the one that Avatar was supposed to be. That was misleading and I’m very very sorry.
— Ryan Brown (@ryanbrown23) October 4, 2013
Yeah, I’m stealing two of my friend’s tweets, but they’re very spot on. While I loved Avatar and think that it was very much the movie we needed, wanted, and expected from it (a discussion for another day), he is very right in saying that Gravity is in the same vein. The film is, above all else, pure cinema – a visual treat that can enthrall without such concerns as character and dialogue. Those are certainly present in the film, but front and center is the beautiful camera work and damn near masturbatory shots of Earth, the sunrise, the aurora borealis, the sunset on the Ganges, and even the deep reaches of space, full of stars. I was gasping several times throughout the film just at the sheer splendor on the screen in front of me.
The group of people that I saw the film with seemed to all have the same “complaint” with the film – the characters, story, and dialogue was paper thin at best. And while I agree entirely, that isn’t a complaint I have with the film. Yes, there was hardly anything to Dr. Ryan Stone, Sandra Bullock’s protagonist, and even less to George Clooney’s
George Clooney Matt Kowalski. The characters are pretty well-trodden archetypal astronauts, and there’s nothing new under the sun – er, adjacent to the sun? – in Gravity in that respect. That’s not to say Clooney and Bullock do a poor job – they both play what is handed to them very well, and are easily able to carry us through the harrowing experience the film sets us in. But there’s simply not much substance to them. As I said, however, this isn’t a complaint that I have.
Early in the film, Kowalski and Stone are floating free from their ship and any nearby space station. Kowalski is repeatedly hailing Houston on the coms: “Houston in the blind, this is Kowalski, do you copy?” Stone asks him why he keeps raising the com, and he responds that you have to talk so that somebody who is listening can hear you. You’ve got to chatter so that somebody can pick it up. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying. Similarly, I really didn’t care what the human characters were saying throughout the film. I’m sorry, Sandra, but I didn’t care about Stone’s daughter. I didn’t care that you found her red shoe that she wanted so badly. I didn’t care, because you weren’t the main character of this film. That would be the boundless void you found yourself in, the empty vacuum of space. I wanted a harrowing thriller film set in that horrifyingly barren world, and to get that I needed somebody there. I needed you there, and I needed to hear you, regardless of what you were saying. Thinking back on it, I don’t recall any of the dialogue. But I don’t think there’s a single visual that I can’t vividly remember.
The characters here aren’t really characters; they’re blank slates. Kowalski is there to reassure and guide; Stone is there to give us somebody to fill ourselves with. Many of the film’s comparatively few shots (I don’t think there are more than 100 shots in the entire film, a marked difference from the over-1000 average shots in most non-action films) are POV shots from Stone’s helmet. Stone isn’t meant to be a character you care about. She’s meant to be you, and her speaking is a necessity because you just need to hear her, to remember that there is a human at the center of this, because it is so easy to get swept up in the visuals and forget there’s a human life at the center of the events.
So yes, the characters are pretty empty. But I think they needed to be for this film to work as it does. It works because it places you in the center of this void and this disaster, rather than having you as an outside observer watching a fully drawn, psychologically deep character go through it. Do I think the film would somehow be worse for it? No, not at all – it might even be better. But it would be different, fundamentally, from the film I saw.
And I loved the film I saw. I loved it because I love space, and this film gave me a lot of it and reminded me of exactly why I love space. For all the tension and the danger inherent in the film’s setting and events, it is still – in the throes of disaster – a stunning sight to behold. Because that’s ultimately what space is: the forbidden beauty, the world we were never supposed to see, the world that tries to kill us at every end for simply trying to see it.
In the midst of disaster, when things looked absurdly bleak and any hope that they were going to survive had abandoned them for the time being, Kowalski was concerned with two things: beating the space walk duration record of Anatoly Solovyev, and the beauty of the sunset over the River Ganges. To escape the bounds placed upon us by that infernal force gravity, and experience such sights?
Isn’t that the best damn thing you can imagine? Verdict: A