When things start going wrong in Gravity (2013; dir. Alfonso Cuarón), one hardly feels capable of watching the screen. There’s an awful inevitability to what occurs, brought on by the laws of physics and of, well, of course, gravity. Every 90 minutes the heroine must face another onslaught of orbiting debris that has knocked out communications with earth, killed her coworkers, and made the prospects of her survival dim.
I am sure there are many elements that Gravity gets wrong, but the verisimilitude, the appearance of realism, the fine attention to detail, the effort to be real, can give one the sense of watching a live-action news report rather than a movie-created illusion.
Against the stunning backdrop of the earth, of the international space station, Gravity offers especially insipid dialog. George Clooney, who plays a senior astronaut on the verge of retirement, is especially irritating as a somewhat self-absorbed space wrangler who’s convinced that romance with his colleague Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) is a great conversational topic during a spacewalk. And there are elements of Gravity that seem entirely predictable—one catastrophe followed by another, survival and recovery and then more danger. But Sandra Bullock’s character, who in her first time in space, sent to reprogram the Hubble telescope, must fight nausea throughout, not to mention fear and horror), carries the film. The acting Bullock must do is not physically demanding--it manifests in how she reads her lines, the tones of her voice, her facial expressions)—mostly we see her face inside a space suit, in various stages of alarm and distress. But she enacts her role deeply and empathetically, especially in an extended scene inside a Russian space station, as she thinks about her situation, her life, and the unlikelihood that she’ll ever return to earth. Her character is introspective and wounded, and there’s a meditative, even spiritual quality to her that many reviews have missed.
Bullock’s character Ryan Stone reminded me especially of Tom Hanks as the man lost on an island in Cast Away (2000; dir. Robert Zemeckis).
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) presented humankind as a species evolving forward into the future through technology, and Gravity offers a similar theme. In both films technology goes awry, and human beings are thrown back entirely on the naked reality of human experience, human consciousness. In Kubrick’s film technology develops its own agency and threatens to take over. In Gravity disaster happens as an unpredictable manifestation of chance, and of the bad planning of nations that never stop to consider the consequences of throwing more and more junk into orbit over the earth. In Kubrick’s film, technology is potentially transformative, even as it threatens to erase the humanness of its creators. In Gravity, technology has the power to kill the humans who employ it, but even to the last moment something fundamentally human and self-sustaining persists.