“GRAVITY” IS SPECTACULAR. This masterpiece from director Alfonso Cuarón (“Y Tu Mama Tambien” “The Children of Men” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” with whose producer, David Heyman, Cuarón collaborated) is one of the most thrilling pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen in some time. It’s a simple enough story: a seemingly routine space mission is wrecked by flying debris while Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), the experienced captain, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a computer specialist on her first mission and Sharif (Phaldut Sharma), another anonymous astronaut, are drifting blissfully outside in the dark airless void, repairing a faulty computer connection. Sharif is killed instantly by a flying shard, as are the rest of the shuttle’s astronauts. Only Stone and Kowalsky, eventually, tethered together, survive. The challenge is to reach a distant decommissioned soviet shuttle before her oxygen runs out. To accomplish this, they must journey through an assault of speeding debris – razor sharp parts from their and from other destroyed shuttles (part of the airborne junk that’s littering our hemisphere).
The filmmaking is totally immersive, especially in the IMAX where I saw it. Cuarón seizes his audiences and relocates them right there with these two astronauts, stranded and helpless 200 miles above the earth. We see them, often as small specks of light floating in the void above the glowing magnificence of the earth, forever turning and tumbling. When Kowalsky tries to get a near hysterical Ryan to focus and give him her location, she finds it difficult to do so as there is (like her life itself) no stable reference point. When the camera zeroes in on her, we see the background forever in motion, swirling and turning and fluid. All around there are objects floating, flying, drifting past them. And then there is the silence. Sound does not travel in a vacuum, so for long stretches of the movie, we, almost within her visor, hear only the sound of her panicked breathing.
It’s visually jaw-dropping. His use of 3D is mercifully, restrained; and unlike so many post “Avatar” movies where the technique seems a gratuitous and self-conscious display of movie technology, here it simply contributes to the duality Cuarón offers us: both of being lost in infinity and of a kind of claustrophobia, hemmed in by her visor. The story is told almost entirely from her point of view which is our point of view.
At its most visceral level, this is a darned good, heart-stopping adventure movie. It’s the other level that lifts it above its comic book storyline (and certainly way above the beautiful silliness of “Avatar”) to something more intellectually (and spiritually?) rewarding.
At this point, if you haven’t seen it, read no more!
Dr. Stone (the Bullock character) has been untethered for many many years before this dramatic moment in space. She’s been emotionally cut loose from the moment her four-year old daughter died several years ago. This may have been her first mission, but really, it’s just the final realization of her spiritual life since the daughter’s death: alone, absorbed in her work, adrift from humanity. At one point, her adrenaline having drained away, and therefore her intuitive need to stay alive having failed, she simply submits to the inevitable, to death. For though in the end she (we) has to save herself, she needs a savior to help her through her desperation and despair.
Her savior is of course Clooney. Clooney’s Kowalsky is a man on his last mission. This wise-arse veteran space-walker is himself about to become untethered: no more missions, no more the opportunity to marvel at the earth’s glowing beauty, means no more reason to live. This tragedy in space becomes the final chapter in his life – the crowning moment when a lifetime of experience can finally bear fruit. It is he who, knowing full well the hopelessness of their cause, steadies the hyper-ventilating Stone. His voice (that oh so recognizable Clooney voice) is that of a calming old-fashioned bedside physician. Here is experience coming to the hand of innocence. In the end, like the savior demanded by the storyline, he gives his life for hers. It is his death, his acceptance that he is about to be untethered, that gives her the opportunity to live.
Ryan, through a mixture of grit and luck finds herself initially in the Russian shuttle which explodes and then in the womb-like canopy of a Chinese shuttle (a Trinity of shuttles?). We see her, divested of her space suit floating and curling embryo-like. For her to free herself from the trauma of her past, she must be emotionally reborn. But does she have the will to free herself? Does she have the faith to do so?
She gives in to death and is again saved by the spirit of Kowalsky. He is the reborn god, the risen one, who appears miraculously next to her as she begins to fade way from a lack of oxygen. His presence, maybe like a prayer or will, reasserts her need to live. He is her deeply buried inner faith that bestirs itself to drive her forward. Somehow she manages to lift the Chinese shuttle to life (Cuarón pays just about enough lip service to her ability to flick through a –well illustrated – ‘how to’ manual in Mandarin to offer some suspension of disbelief), decouple it from its mother ship and force it past the earth’s protective shield, accompanied by an army of flaming debris, like fiery angels.
She crashes into a lake somewhere, maybe in China, where her pod is filled with water from which she must escape, again shedding herself of her encumbering space suit. The water she is escaping from is the amniotic fluid of the womb. It is at this point that (quasi) naked, she is finally reborn as she emerges from the lake gasping for air. When she reaches land, she crawls out of the lake, out of the slime, like the first creature emerging onto terra firma from an aquatic past. It is at this point that she, both the astronaut who has (miraculously) managed to survive and the newly reborn Dr. Stone finally experiences, as she stands up (and the camera lingers on her quite stellar body) the eponymous gravity. She is no longer tethered to the past, untethered from humanity. She can now literally stand on her own. She has in so many ways, survived.
There is even a sense in this, really quite religious, epic scaled movie (with a cast of thousands…oops two) that who has survived isn’t so much Dr Stone, but humanity itself. What we witnessed was the violent destruction of humanity’s brilliance – space exploration – by itself – the fall out and debris of wrecked shuttles. What has emerged (must emerge?) into a new pre-lapsarian universe, crawling out of the slime of its own traumatic past, is reborn man.