By: Daniel Reynolds
When 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in 1968 an anecdote was passed around involving Rock Hudson walking out of the theatre early. Apparently, having not appreciated the boundless, wordless and thoroughly esoteric introduction of Stanley Kubrick’s arguable masterpiece (I’m more of a Strangelove guy myself), Hudson was overheard remarking, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” While the sentiment of his statement was one of bored indifference, it scratched at an itch that we, as humans, have been grappling with since we first were able to crane our necks upward to look into the black forever above our heads. Just what the hell is that all about anyway? Here we are in 2013, 45 years after Hudson’s outburst, untold millennia after Kubrick’s cro-magnon apemen presumably first swung a bone, and Alfonso Cuaron offers us Gravity as an answer. Like 2001, Gravity is an ambitious film that grapples with the enormity of space and yet still finds a way to zero in on the singularity of human solitude and strength. Rock Hudson probably would have liked it.
As has been mentioned elsewhere, Cuaron is a difficult director to pin down. He has directed sexy coming-of-age road movies (Y Tu Mama Tambien), blockbuster franchise sequels (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and, before disappearing for seven years to produce Gravity, he unveiled 2006’s Children of Men, one of the more technically astounding and beautifully designed movies of the decade. Being unable to predict what Cuaron would do next, the anticipation for Gravity – with its spectacular sounding stranded-in-space premise – had been soaring higher than the stratosphere.
The trajectory of the film is actually quite easy to describe. We are in Earth’s orbit watching a crew of astronauts as they service the Hubble telescope circling the globe. Using the stately visuals typically reserved for astronomy documentaries, Cuaron sets the differential in the scale early; three tiny humans (played by Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and Paul Sharma, with a radio-voiced assist from Ed Harris) are floating in a massive, overwhelming sea of stars. The action kicks up once an erroneously created satellite debris field is stirred up and sent spinning around the planet. The magnificent silence is shattered. Quite frankly, I’m going to run out of synonyms here to describe the breathtaking beauty with which Cuaron is able to capture the sheer magnitude of outer space. If it was not already made clear in Children of Men, Cuaron’s detailed oriented productions, his keen eye for small touches, for texture, for maximizing the abilities of technology today put him, and his film, at the vanguard of modern filmmaking. I do not say this lightly, but the rumours are true: watching Gravity in IMAX 3D is a worthwhile experience. The movie truly can envelope you through its long takes and breakneck set pieces. Yet, regardless, the small touches are there, the human element still visible in the foreground.
For his part, Clooney is charming and effective as Mission Commander Matt Kowalski. He tells stories, keeps the banter light, you can tell he respects the depth of the sea he is swimming in but would rather keep everyone calm. Sure, appreciate it, Kowalski seems to be implying, but do not lose yourself to its thrall. Fat chance. The film turns on the early, succinctly established professional relationship between Clooney’s Kowalski and Bullock’s Ryan Stone. There is a modest romantic tension there – with Clooney involved, how could there not be? – but Bullock’s Stone is more concerned with edgy efficiency (and keeping her lunch down). While Clooney’s performance is winning, Bullock does the dramatic heavy lifting. It’s a challenging role, draped in loneliness and constantly at risk of being consumed by the surrounding visual splendor and oblivion. Bullock carries it with a steely resolve that matches her own character’s motivation; she will not get lost in space.
For a film of such remarkable vistas (Emmanuel Lubezki has to finally win the Oscar now, right?), Cuaron does manage, with the help of the aforementioned emoting from Bullock, to anchor the film in real human empathy. While his narrative is much more conventional than, say, Kubrick’s grand comment on human evolution, the audience is never far from understanding and experiencing the terror of an airless, soundless, weightless, endless space. While her character is sketched quickly, Bullock’s Stone becomes something of a testament to humanity’s own desire to endure and ultimately survive. We’re talking about a film with multiple sequences of awesome space debris-related terror, and yet, the small moments – the sound of dogs barking on a radio, the presence of mind to grab a fire extinguisher, tears floating away in zero-G – feel bigger than the sun. Even in the quietest of places found in the silence of a vacuum (used to brilliant effect here), we are not alone. We are never really alone. As a thesis, Gravity’s design elegantly teases this philosophical line out as the CGI-created visions grow larger and larger towards their climax.
I realize I’ve been vague about the plot specifics of Gravity. You may be asking, like poor ol’Rock Hudson, what the hell is this about anyway? Gravity is a film of perspective – both the vast and claustrophobic. We’re given an opportunity to revel in space, be in awe of the scale of the earth. We view this through film technology, science, and human ingenuity at its absolute apex (so far). We marvel at Gravity’s ability to pull us into the inner space of a single woman as she navigates an endless tide while also capturing an ocean of stars so wide you strain your neck trying to take it all in. While 2001: A Space Odyssey looked outwards, to Jupiter and beyond the infinite, Gravity’s greatest pleasure is simple; it’s an appreciation of the ability to look inward, to find the will to put one foot in front of the other.