By Savannah Wood
I’m not generally one to measure my enjoyment of a film by the number of times I almost had a panic attack, but Gravity brought out the anxiety-masochist in me. It doesn’t help that open space is one of my greatest fears (one which, fortunately, I’ll most likely never have to experience), but every element of this incredible film conspired against me to give me a ride unlike any I’ve experienced in a while.
The premise is simple. Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first mission into space, accompanied by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) on his final expedition–establishing right off the bat a kind of symmetrical significance to the relationship between beginnings and endings. The mission is going smoothly when debris from a satellite hurtles through space and destroys their shuttle. Stone and Kowalski are hurtled away, helpless, into open space, and have to race against the clock to find a way home. I had the fear that the movie would be either 90 minutes of tedious existential reflection, or persistently implausible action, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it was something else entirely.
Alfonso Cuarón (acclaimed director of Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También) treats the camera like an entity in itself, a free-floating object in space, holding our attention through incredibly long, circular takes. The camera encircled the scenes with a casual decadence–carefully choreographed, they unfold with ballet-like grace and precision against a backdrop of jaw-dropping perspectives of Earth and space. It’s truly a sight to behold. Cuarón, who co-wrote the film with his brother Jonás, doesn’t rely on flashbacks to tell the story. He builds the characters through action and careful, natural dialogue. Aside from a few respites into vague backstory territory, our understanding of and compassion for these characters doesn’t need to go beyond that. It’s showing instead of telling, and it’s good writing. Instead, Cuarón gives us a feast for the senses. We get more out of the pace of Bullock’s breathing as she gasps for air, and the whirring, dynamic soundtrack that runs down your spine like prickling fingers than we ever could out of a line of dialogue. Cuarón’s visual delights operate on variations of a theme of spheres and circles–the tantalizing spread of the globe beneath them, droplets of tears drifting through zero gravity, the image of Bullock curled up in a circular pod like a womb. The cycle of life, death, and rebirth plays out before our eyes in a heart-pounding symphony of the senses. The performances were top-notch. Sandra Bullock mesmerized in her panic and hope, there was something organic about her portrayal that elicited an outflow of empathy that kept me panicked and hopeful right along with her. I predict she’ll receive a fair amount of buzz and recognition for this role, and justifiably so.
There are no aliens, or implausible crafts or technology, or futuristic themes in Gravity. The film revolves solely around two people, alone with the vastness of space. Decades upon decades of science fiction have built themselves upon the idea that we are not alone in space, and that’s terrifying. But Gravity raises the question, is it scarier to be hunted, or abandoned? The anxious seclusion of floating above your home and being unable to reach it is an egregious loss of control. So many horror films prey on the idea of being stalked, outnumbered, and attacked, but Gravity plays its cosmic horror on the very primal fear of complete isolation. But I wouldn’t pidgeon-hole Gravity as a thriller. Sure, the suspense and psychological thrills gave me a heart palpitation or twenty. It was driven, exciting, it kept me electrified and amazed and nauseated all at once. But Gravity is about more than survival–it’s about rebirth. It’s about reconciling your right to take up space in an endless expanse, and acknowledge that your value and significance can exist within those confines; to entertain the possibility of a future that doesn’t have to shift the cosmos to be important. Audience members will find that Dr. Stone is on more than a quest for survival. She’s searching for the weight of importance in the weightlessness of space. Gravity is existential exploration through visual imagery, and it’s one hell of a ride.