Gravity defies the conventions of space survival movies with its visual brilliance


Trust Hollywood to include stereotypes even in a film with only two White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) characters. The Russians play true to their post-Cold War image as agents of chaos by quite literally breaking space, when the decommissioning of a spy satellite sets off a chain reaction that destroys, along with most satellites, both the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station. “Half of North America just lost their Facebook”, George Clooney drily remarks. The abandoned Chinese Space Station features two ping pong paddles floating in mid-air, presumably part of some secret communist plot to teach control to future Olympians. Clooney essays the role of Matt Kowalsky – the archetypal male American hero: cocky, yet calm under extreme odds, the charming extrovert who helps the nervous woman come to terms with the situation as well as all that ails her personal life.
But none of this, not even the awful writing at times for that matter, strikes as particularly offensive. True, there is little, pardon the pun, actual “gravity” to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity when it comes to what it has to say about human nature. The plot weaves the familiar story of the triumph of the human will. But it’s a familiar story of the triumph of the human will set in space, which makes all the difference.
For Cuarón, aided by his frequent collaborator and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, has produced what may be one of the greatest cinematic experiences ever. To quote Clooney, it is “an actual argument for 3D”. By judiciously using the technology, Cuarón is able to transport the audience to outer space, to make it all look realistic, and make us feel as if we are watching from a space station of our own. It helps that there is very little use of the bells and whistles that most directors would normally employ to justify their enormous budgets.
“The thing is you are prepared to do your job, but you are not prepared for the view around you,” says Michael Massimino, one of several NASA astronauts the media has rounded up to comment on the scientific authenticity of the film. And their verdict: the film takes liberties, but again, nothing blatant or glaring enough to appear offensive or incredulous. Cuarón and Lubezki capture some stunning visuals, bringing you as close as you’re ever going to get to the real thing – unless you’re willing to shell out millions of dollars to let Richard Branson send you up there. It is this transplantation, this implication of the audience into the thick of the action, that 3D was meant to achieve before Hollywood decided to use it just as an amusement park ride and little else.
Once the audience begins to look at the film from its vantage point in the surreal environs of outer space, the stakes become all too real. The key here is the silence (I was lucky enough to watch the film without any cellphones going off.) The eerie silence reveals the nothingness in which mankind, in all its hubris, is trying to make its mark. The primary antagonist in the film is space debris, tiny pieces of junk travelling at almost 300,000 kilometres per hour; a single screw that came off some ancient satellite can puncture through the most advanced protection we’ve ever come up with, instantly killing the exposed astronaut. Matters are complicated even further by the fact that they are cut off completely from ground control as the debris takes down the communications systems. At least, that’s what the lead characters figure; for all we know, it could be because NASA was closed due to the government shutdown.
Against these odds, Matt and Ryan’s (Sandra Bullock) struggle to get back to Earth instantly assume heroic proportions. Which is just as well, because as people, the two aren’t exactly the most fascinating characters ever written. Both Clooney and Bullock deliver inspired performances – the latter, probably the best she’s ever been on screen – but there is little we actually find out about who they really are. The real human drama in the film is where Ryan considers what life is like on Earth and has doubts about whether she really wants to go back, but the reason the film gives is an unnecessary cloying backstory she tells Matt – they’re such professionals that even the most basic details of their personal lives never came up in conversation during months of training together. However convincing she might look as a scared novice trying to come to terms with her environment and survive, when Bullock starts talking about herself, she sounds like an actor playing a part. It’s clumsy storytelling, the annoying sort that reminds you that no, you’re not really in space, you’re watching a Hollywood movie.
There is, to be fair, little about Gravity that resembles a Hollywood movie. It is a marvel of engineering, a blockbuster stripped down to its bare bones, providing the transcendental experience of cinema without the needless bulk that is added to satisfy some formula – no product placement, either. But the stripping down makes the plot seem naked as well. How much it distracts you from the visual brilliance of the film will determine how much you enjoy Gravity. And judging by the reception it has received, for most people, it doesn’t one bit.