Amazing Space, How Sweet the Sights and Sounds
Space is nothingness. Its very existence is abstract, predicated on the absence of something rather than being something itself. Common usage has grouped all interstellar matter – planets, stars, galaxies – under the blanket term “space,” but Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity harks back to the original meaning of the word by presenting the cosmos as nothing more or less than what we know it to be: an incalculable emptiness, stretching out as far as the eye or mind can see. There’s no air, no sound and, as far as we know, no life. Our greatest fear when watching the film is not of hurtling debris or loss of oxygen, though both are plenty terrifying. It’s the thought of getting lost in this emptiness, spinning away into oblivion with nothing but the horrors of our own minds to keep us company.
This fear embodies existential despair, and is part of the reason why Gravity emerges not only a landmark technical achievement but an epic human story. Cuarón could easily have left the movie at the level of its special effects and gotten away with a great work of cinema. It’s a powerfully immersive experience, dovetailing vivid 3D and spatially accurate surround sound to give us a constant sense of depth, distance, and (dis)orientation from one nerve-fraying scene to the next (according to a video on the making of Gravity, sound may not be able to travel in space, but an astronaut’s ear can perceive vibrations in his/her suit. The movie evokes this with its aural design, and more than compensates for everything else with the surging score by Steven Price). Lengthy tracking shots swoop around a digitally created space-scape, thrusting us into the shoes (or suits) of untethered astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as they swim around zero-gravity trying to survive in the wake of a freak accident. Point of view shots literally grant us Stone’s panicked perspective, and there’s a near-constant feeling of vertigo stemming from that fear of floating adrift. It’s the tower-climbing scene from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol all over again, except this time the danger of “falling” applies to every direction including down.
It’s thrilling stuff, further advancing cinema’s technological frontier in our post-Avatar, post-Life of Pi world. James Cameron, the director of the former, has famously hailed Gravity as “the greatest space film ever done.” But Cuarón, a storyteller at heart, is interested in not only outer space but inner space, and how the two can become inextricably bound over the course of the film’s ninety exhilarating minutes. Part way through the movie, it’s revealed that Stone had suffered a personal tragedy years before the story proper. We wonder at the significance of this revelation in the context of the movie’s effects-heavy design. Is it merely a tacky ploy to get us to sympathize with the character? After all, the tactic has been used countless times before: an action hero is endowed with a troubled past as a half-hearted attempt at adding a third dimension to a paper-thin personality. When push comes to shove, however, emotional nuance gives way to spectacle, and humanity is forgotten.
But oh how Gravity remembers humanity, champions it, and sends it soaring. For one, there’s the sparse but effective dialogue. Though sometimes clunky, the verbal exchanges are lent added weight because they occur in such an alien setting. We hold onto each word for dear life because it tells us a character is still breathing, still alive. Bullock and Clooney deliver their lines convincingly, and strike charming chemistry amid all the chaos. But the movie’s pivotal scene doesn’t come until later, and it revolves around Stone. You’ll know it when you see it. As she faces certain death, the immense bleakness of outer space both exacerbates and becomes an outward manifestation of her internal desolation. The battle for survival becomes as much psychological as it is physical, and the movie’s visual environment is further abstracted as corporeal dangers take on the emotional tenor of a soul under attack. Here at the edge of the world, Stone is forced to make the choice that has haunted her for a long time: whether to keep on fighting or to let go.
I’ll say no more on the plot, but the movie’s structure is crucial to its power. What begins a story of cosmic proportions focuses into the story of an individual, which in turn expands into a story for us all. This telescoping effect creates drama of a profound order, one that unifies the visceral, the emotional, and the psychological into a single fabric with implications on every level. On its glorious surface, Gravity is cutting-edge moviemaking and a thriller with the pulling force of a black hole. It’s the very definition of cinema as experience, far surpassing the standards set by even the most jaded 21st century viewers. Below all this, however, the film lives as an extended metaphor for the human spirit. It’s amazing that Cuarón brings together something so intimate with something so vast, the human heart with the expanse of the universe. For although outer space spans solar systems and traverses light years, Gravity tells us that inner space is taller, wider, and deeper still.