The movie is about survival, to be sure, but more than survival: it’s about what we’re trying to survive for.
I walked out of the theater after seeing Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity–which he co-wrote with his son, Jonás–as excited about a movie as I have been in some time. An old piece of advice about writing is “Put your character up a tree and throw rocks at him.” Gravity embodies this advice in the most stripped-down fashion possible, with a plot so basic, so elemental, that it is a model of good storytelling. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her colleague Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are not only put up a tree, they’re put up in space, carrying out experiments on the space shuttle orbiting the earth. But when shuttle is damaged, not by rocks, but by space debris from a defunct Russian satellite, Stone and Kowalski are forced to fight for their survival with precious few resources. The exterior goal of the protagonists is simple, survival, and the plot follows the protagonists with a clean line, with each attempt to attain the goal leading to an even bigger obstacle to its attainment.
Gravity is the best 3-D movie I have ever seen–and I’m still reflecting on why I think so. Cuarón does not employ 3-D simply to make us jump at objects flying toward us. His use of 3-D is subtler. The broad panoramas upon which he invites us to linger–a single human being spacewalking against the enormous backdrop of space and earth– have something to do with it. The breadth of the canvas and the laconic pace of some of the scenes allow the eye to assimilate the 3-D effect until it seems natural. But then again, many other scenes in gravity are claustrophobic, as we’re taken inside a cramped cockpit or inside Dr. Stone’s space helmet to view the horizon from her point of view. The 3-D works well in these smaller spaces, too, because Cuarón is not trying to hit us over the head with its effects.
I read someone describe the look of Gravity as “majestic” and I agree. And the special effects of the film are finely done. Sure, there are explosions, but the context is not one of gratuitous or stylized violence, but of realistic danger to human beings at the mercy of the technology of gigantic ships roiling through the emptiness of space.
What is Gravity about? Survival, to be sure, but more than survival. It’s about what we’re trying to survive for. The thematic contrast between space and the gravity that pulls us back to the solid earth, the earth where human beings were made to live, is the most interesting aspect of the movie. At the beginning of the story Dr. Stone is happy to be in space where, she says, it is “quiet,” and where she is away from the sadness of earth (she is mourning the accidental death of her four year-old daughter). But as her fight for survival proceeds, she undergoes a rebirth in her understanding–a rebirth imaged by a scene in which she, exhausted, floats in a 0-gravity capsule like an unborn baby in amniotic fluid. In a moving scene in which she, having resigned herself to die, imagines that she is visited by her now dead colleague, Kowalski, Dr. Stone realizes that life is still beautiful and she has much to live for. She makes a last-gasp attempt to find a way back to earth–and she succeeds.
But it’s the scene in which Dr. Stone resigns herself to die that is the most riveting in the film. She’s sitting in the cockpit of a capsule in the Chinese space station, but with no fuel to re-enter earth’s atmosphere. She says aloud to herself, amazedly, that this will be the day on which she will die. Then she adds this heartbreaking confession:
“But no one’s going to mourn for me. No one’s going to pray for my soul….I’ve never prayed. No one ever taught me how.”
Twice before in the film Cuarón directs our gaze to the religious beliefs of the astronauts who man these satellites: once through a holy card of Christ on the dashboard of the cockpit of the International Space Station, and then through a statuette of Budda on the dashboard of the cockpit in the Chinese capsule. These small signs, coupled with Dr. Stone’s confession, direct us, not to the majesties of the heavens where no man has gone before, but to the wonder of the earth where gravity pulls us, an earth whose sadness might be renewed by the divine.
If only there were someone to teach us how.