Gravity (2013)

Dir. Alfonso Cuaron. Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

The Blue Marble, probably taken by Jack Schmitt aboard Apollo 17, has had a profound effect on the many millions of people who viewed it. Carl Sagan, twenty-odd years later, saw Earth from even farther away in the Pale Blue Dot. Everything you have ever known or have ever heard about comes from this pale blue dot, he said. Reading what he wrote about that picture is like staring down an existential crisis. There’s great beauty in our planet, and that beauty is surrounded by that most unforgiving environment. Gravity doesn’t do anything very new with that premise, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but its conclusions are jarring. This is a movie which is as scientific as any other space movie ever made, limiting the amount of sound we can hear, for example, and strictly limiting the amount of propellant its characters can wield. Yet the film is as Hollywood as any other I’ve seen; it is awfully scared to kill Sandra Bullock, and it reduces the horror of outer space to just another place where someone can Find Herself. Gravity looks at its plot and makes a choice which I can only find strange. With the world quite literally in front of our heroine, it chooses the most hackneyed arc it can find for her.

Stone (Bullock) is a mission specialist who is entirely alone in her Illinois hometown. She has no husband, and her young daughter died in a freak accident. When she’s ready to give up after the hardest day at work any of us have ever had, she lowers the O2 in her little beat-up Soyuz capsule, out of fuel and unable to maneuver, and decides to float off to sleep. (Thank the maker that the movie didn’t choose a much more efficient way to commit suicide.) While she’s out, Kowalski (Clooney), the mission commander who sacrificed himself to give Stone a chance to live, appears and gives her some hints about how to cajole a little more propulsion out of the system. It’s of course a hallucination, brought on by this gentle attempted suicide. But what follows is unbearably stupid, a totally indefensible caricature of grief. As Stone begins her preparations for one last glorious act to get her to the Shenzhou capsule and then home, she begins to speak to Kowalski:

You are going to see a little girl with brown hair, very messy, lots of knots. She doesn’t like to brush it. That’s okay. Her name is Sarah. Can you please tell her that mama found her red shoe? She was so worried about that shoe, Matt. But it was right under the bed. Give her a big hug and a big kiss for me and tell her that mama misses her. You tell her that she is my angel. And she makes me so proud. So, so proud. And you tell her that I’m not quitting.

At this point, Stone has survived two rounds of debris traveling around the Earth at high speed, debris which has destroyed a space shuttle, the ISS, and some number of astronauts. She has braved fire inside an oxygen-rich environment (which is, as far as I can tell, one of the serious scientific failures of the movie), sustained herself despite running out of air in her tank, managed to make an emergency landing using herself on a space station, and done half a dozen other incredible feats for a novice astronaut. What could a dead daughter possibly add to this story? Wasn’t it dramatic enough without this nonspecific daughter to deal with? (Seriously, her name is Sarah? Did they want her to evaporate from our minds immediately?) This is the exact same problem that soldiers staring at pictures of their gals back home bring to a plot; the drama they already have suffices, in much the same way that one doesn’t take ibuprofen and acetaminophen to attack a headache from different angles. Stone has never been to church, never prayed before, never opened up to a world beyond the purely scientific, and all of a sudden she’s having conversations only she can hear with a man who will float on in eternity. Most curious of all is the way that this has changed Stone as a character. Like the members of the Jupiter mission in 2001, Stone is mostly impassive for the vast majority of the picture. Unlike Dave Bowman, who sees something genuinely unprecedented, reacts, and then sinks into impassivity again, Stone becomes maudlin; all that’s missing from the end of the movie, when Stone kisses the mud beneath her face, is a “MERRY CHRISTMAS, YOU WONDERFUL OLD BUILDING AND LOAN!” Cuaron and his son, Jose, wrote the film, and thank heavens that the father knows how to compose a shot. If they didn’t, they’d have a hard time even getting jobs at Pure Flix with a screenplay this bad, which glorifies motes and shrinks infinity.

The worst instincts of the screenplay infect even the good parts of the movie. Frequently, the film will show us some people and follow with rack focus to follow an object floating in space—a retainer, Marvin the Martian, a pen. It’s used at the end as well, when Stone sinks to the bottom of a small lake and a little frog swims above her. Aside from the relative gutsiness of rack focus in a movie this computer-generated, it’s potentially brilliant. One can see that a human corpse is subject to the same laws of physics as a retainer. In space, we are all objects which bounce about in the same absence of gravity; a little plastic figurine has no more agency than Stone has. I’m afraid that the filmmakers thought the retainer or Marvin were humanizing. Perhaps they are meant to make us sad rather than contemplative, to put our minds on “Some people have to wear retainers” instead of “All of us are helpless bobbing blobs in the vacuum of space.” But if they were looking to humanize the deceased crew of Explorer, then surely that could have been accomplished by giving those characters lines or something rather than staring down Bullock and Clooney to the exclusion of anyone else.

The best scenes of the film are in the beginning, when the destruction of Explorer takes an agonizingly long time and even the introduction of this space shuttle is ponderous. The pacing in the beginning is spot on, although Kowalski’s chatter is intensely distracting. (For a movie that’s so good with its science, one assumes that it would have a better sense of NASA mission protocol.) Even with little flaws like Kowalski’s endlessly generic he-man stories, the way the movie is shot is remarkable. When Gravity hides its cuts, it’s genuinely difficult to tell where one shot ends and another begins. There’s good reason for the film to rotate its camera, zoom in on the relatively miniscule objects around our own relatively tiny planet, and to showcase the beauty of our planet and the luminous, angular attractiveness of the spacecraft. Cuaron won Best Director at the Oscars for his work on this movie, and while it’s remarkable (ah, euphemisms) that he scooped Steve McQueen that year, there’s no doubt that the movie’s saving grace is the sort of majestic visual spectacle that works on the same level as Avatar or Life of Pi.

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