Can we imagine a more beautiful death than oxygen depletion during a space walk? Floating in absolute peace and utter silence, free to simply gaze at the most beautiful object in the universe from the best of all vantage points. You sleep, and you die. After a solemn, silent wake, the Earth’s atmosphere performs cremation on your remains. Were it not for the crushing loneliness and prohibitive cost, given the choice, why would I want to die any other way?
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity has been described (and sometimes dismissed) as a “roller coaster.” While action movies frequently get that label, the analogy is particularly apt in this case. Gravity, after all, is the force that provides roller coasters with their momentum. As an exercise in evoking the sensation of movement, the movie Gravity is one of the most potent experiences I’ve had in a theater. Never before have I seen the “worst-case scenario” for astronauts portrayed so relentlessly (Apollo 13, for example, periodically brought its audience back down to Earth for a respite). More than any actual roller coaster, the movie explores the sensation of being totally out of control of one’s own motion — spinning away at great speeds with no way of stopping oneself, thrusting oneself forward and then not being able to slow one’s momentum. As an action movie with a dash of horror, Gravity is white-knuckle exciting from start to finish.
But I should address the dismissive part of the “roller coaster” analogy. A theme park ride (or a fireworks show) is, quite naturally, an exercise in style without substance. There’s no content, no story. The content in Gravity has been exposed to some criticism, but I do believe there’s more to the film than special effects. This isn’t just a kind of “what-if” documentary about an accident in space. I think the storytelling and characterization are adequate. If they were better, the film would be a masterpiece rather than just very good. But there is enough meat to the story to make the two characters in the film register as human beings rather than mere biological units performing tasks.
Much of the criticism has been directed at Matt, played by George Clooney. Here’s my interpretation of the character: he’s an old pro, but that doesn’t mean space doesn’t scare him anymore. The way he’s learned to control his fear is by talking incessantly — telling jokes and stories. Storytelling as a way of overcoming fear is an ancient human practice, as Zach Ralston points out in his review of the film. There is a thick wall in place between Matt’s inner self and his persona, which is why Clooney, who always plays things close to the vest as an actor, was a great choice to play him. Even so, it’s harder to find the humanity in Matt than to find it in the film’s main character, Ryan, played by Sandra Bullock. Clooney’s performance is sometimes too aloof, but Bullock does marvelous work. In a physically demanding role, she is not only convincing, but emotionally resonant as well. Her evolution from damsel in distress to survivor is wonderful to see.
Another thing distinguishing this film from a mere thrill ride is that it calls to mind so many other films. (Perhaps a great roller coaster can remind you of other roller coasters, but not in any substantial way.) The most common comparison I’ve heard is with 2001: A Space Odyssey. To me, that’s a little goofy; Gravity is much more akin to the sci-fi horror of Alien, its characters trapped and vulnerable to sudden, gruesome death. But Cuarón’s film shares one aspect with Stanley Kubrick’s, which Keith Phipps describes in his review of Gravity for The Dissolve. In one sense, the comparison magnifies 2001, a film that accomplishes in just one scene so much of what Gravity is trying to do in ninety minutes. Both films show us the wonder and terror of space, and also give us pride in the things we’ve been able to accomplish up there regardless.
Gravity also calls to mind Avatar and Life of Pi due to its groundbreaking CGI and 3D. Its plot is very similar to the latter’s. However, it manages to get across its spiritual themes without the preachiness of Avatar or the visually static exposition that ends Life of Pi. The ambiguity between a literal and metaphorical interpretation is just as strong in Gravity as in Life of Pi without needing to spell it out. Avatar wraps up its story in predictable ways, but Gravity kept me wondering up to the end.
And then there’s Inception. Christopher Nolan’s film is another well-constructed thriller that incorporates zero gravity as a special effect. Josh Larsen, currently co-hosting the podcast Filmspotting, called Inception a “video game movie,” noting the plot’s use of different levels in its dream world, each level with a distinct goal to achieve. This week, Chris Plante, editor of the website Polygon, compared Gravity‘s story and style to that of a video game. (Both writers, incidentally, mean this as a compliment.) Additionally, neither Inception nor Gravity is content to be a simple procedural. Each strains for tragic resonance, and some critics have argued that they come up empty.
I’m drawn most to compare Gravity to my all-time favorite film. If The Tree of Life is an epic poem, Gravity, likewise shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, is a pocket paperback featuring some of the same threads: bereaved mothers taking their lamentation to the cathedral of the second heaven, where they learn how to “let go”; creation/evolution typified by pregnancy and birth. It’s no surprise that such a visually extravagant film as Gravity has been influenced by so many other visually rich films.
I’m impressed with Gravity‘s attempt to wrestle with paradoxical values:
- The vastness of space and the intimacy of two people in conversation (or one person alone with her thoughts). This is why the seventeen-minute opening shot is so appropriate, perhaps the most appropriate use of the long take possible. It’s an establishing shot of an unimaginably large “movie set.” It takes in the beauty and danger of the situation as well as the intricate yet routine work the astronauts are performing. Over the course of the story, characters spin into the endless void before returning to cramped escape pods.
- Horrible luck and amazing luck. On closer inspection, this might turn out to be a pretty glaring flaw, but I’m fascinated by how the film mixes consistent application of Murphy’s law with the characters’ consistent ability to get right where they need to be, just in time (also avoiding decapitation by satellite debris). Given the situation, the movie might be more implausible the longer its characters survive, but I don’t mind.
- Complexity and simplicity. Visually, of course, the film is full of detail. The hardware the astronauts use is very complex. But the story is simple, elemental. At ninety minutes, this is a compact film, but it travels around the world.
And most importantly:
- Letting go and holding on. What’s the “message” of the film? Either of those phrases will do. Gravity shows how a life well-lived consists of knowing how, why, and when to do both. This is a very simple theme with wide-ranging applications. It’s not just about living well; it’s about dying well.
To summarize: “Oh yeah? Can a roller coaster do this?” I’d much rather celebrate a film than defend it, and Gravity hardly needs my defense anyway, being one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. But I think it’s worthwhile to explore what makes the movie work and how it can inspire deeper reflection once it’s over, despite its apparent superficiality. This film beats the summer blockbusters at their own game. It’s a keeper.