Gravity: The Weight of Water

Gravity Sandra Bullock

[This post contains spoilers for Gravity, but since I seem to be the last person in the universe to see the film, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem…]

By the time I got around to seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, so much had already been said. It received rapturous reviews, then a bunch of criticisms of its scientific plausibility, then prompted, or at least chimed with, talk about space debris, roused the obligatory Oscar “buzz” (i.e. somebody somewhere thought it might win a couple of awards), and generally came on like an end-of-year blockbuster that showed the summer how thrills and spectacle should have been handled. So, while I feel like I want to write a little something about the film, I’m not too keen to burden you with a retread of opinions you might already have found elsewhere.

Nevertheless, I should probably register my overall approval for this movie: it’s visually sensational, shuttling between moments of epic scale that dwarf the film’s human participants, and close-up, breath-on-the-lens intimacy. It transported me into orbit, and fabricated a feeling of vertiginous peril over the top of the planet more effectively than anything I’ve seen since 2001: A Space Odyssey, and regular readers of Spectacular Attractions will know that I consider that to be about the highest praise I can offer a film set in space. Gravity is kind of like 2001 meets The Wages of Fear, an existential crisis played out with the possibility of sudden death at any moment, a gargantuan get-out-of-this game with time pressures and, most frighteningly of all, instruction manuals! Every time Sandra Bullock had to open up the user’s guide to some escape pod or other, I felt the ratcheting tension I always feel whenever I have to contend with the dead language of instructional literature to operate my admittedly less life-saving household appliances. The thought of my life depending on my ability to decipher one of those mind-numbing, indecipherable, jumped-up pamphlets at high speed filled me with as much dread as a rapidly depleting oxygen supply or a volley of bullet-speed satellite debris. The mundanity of the task exacerbated rather than trivialised the enormity of the danger.
GRAVITYAnd, needless to say, the visual effects are rendered flawlessly, flattered even further by Cuaron’s preference for long takes and big reveals: his camera is as weightless as his protagonists, and even when the spacewalk scenes are almost entirely computer-generated, they never collapse under inspection. The soundtrack is similarly extraordinary, from Steven Price’s showily ambient score, which does the job of filling the eerie silence of space with booming, post-musical white noise when things get explosive, to the attenuation of voices from their sources: we hear speech as if it is inside our own helmets, which is used for various effects, but often isolates speakers (and breathers) within their own private terrors.Sandra_Bullock_&_George_Clooney_GravityOn the minus side, there must be a few quibbles. I’m probably suffering from Clooney fatigue. My journey to and from the cinema was punctuated by bus-stop posters of George flogging Nespresso capsules (and being paid the price of a small lunar mission into the bargain – NB this is a joke, but it bears a glancing resemblance to actuality), and while the guy is clearly charming, intelligent, articulate and, like, totally hawt, I still find him too comfortable a presence as an actor. Maybe it’s largely the way the part is written, but he glides his way so confidently through the unfolding catastrophe that he assuages fear and dissipates tension. Still, I’m thankful that the original casting of Natalie Portman and Robert Downey Jr. didn’t work out thanks to fortuitous scheduling conflicts.GRAVITYSandra Bullock does her best work here, miming just the right amount of crippling anxiety to make us feel empathetically imperilled, without making it too hard to believe that she could ever worm her way out of this situation. There are times later in the film when she is too statuesque, her face too chiselled and composed: her physique speaks of steely heroism, when we need to character to embody the utter frangibility of the human meat inside the metallic shitstorm. But on the whole, she manages to hold the attention despite her near total isolation onscreen: the backstage stories of her struggles the filming of such a technically prescribed performance are a compelling parallel story of the fractious relationships between people and machines.Bullock GravityI’ve been wondering how keen I am on the whole “rebirth” theme that runs underneath the film’s otherwise very lean and efficient narrative structure. I don’t want to rush to judgement after a single viewing, but I think I found certain moments a little overstated, such as the shot where Bullock floats, foetus-like inside a module on the International Space Station: it’s part homage to 2001‘s play with zero-gravity rotations, and part obvious womb-return metaphor. I appreciate that Cuaron must have wanted to add an emotional resonance to his story, and as a father to two tiny daughters, I find any mention of lost children automatically, helplessly affecting, but for my money, it reminded me of too many other movies where space is the place where we meet our deceased loved ones or confront the mysteries of the soul (ContactMission to MarsSunshine2001Event Horizon, etc. even Alien is heavy on the womb/birth metaphors); on the other hand, the lure of the sublime images routinely found in outer space must be too much to resist investing with some spiritual import, and I probably didn’t need another Apollo 13, entirely built around the everyday practicalities of averting a disastrous moonshot (although the casting of Ed Harris as the voice of Mission Control is surely a nod to his role in that earlier movie).Gravity-07But that rebirth element, where Bullock decides to fight for her life, and is rewarded with a safe return to Earth, is not an incidental or subtextual theme: it’s a large part of the film’s second half, motivating and structuring our heroine’s decisions and actions. Her escape pod from the Chinese space station splashes down in a lake, where it sinks, forcing her to strip herself of the spacesuit that is dragging her down to the bottom. We’re not told where this lake is, but it looks rather primordial, as Bullock, like a newly evolved fish, pulls her body ashore and onto her bandy legs as they adjust to the effects of a sudden gravitational pull. Le Voyage dans la Lune (Georges Melies 1902) Tableau 14I was reminded of the shot near the end of Georges Melies’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (an ongoing obsession on this blog) where the lunar travellers plummet to the depths of the ocean and briefly witness a world as strange as the one they encountered inside the Moon. Gravity even includes a frog (Melies uses a newt) to signal the return to earthly ecosystems. The vision of an accelerated evolution, as Bullock crawls from the amniotic lake and rises from a crouch to a stride in a matter of seconds, is the culmination of an emotional arc where she pledges to overcome her inertia and return to her life anew. You can take it or leave it. But I was struck by the film’s use of water as a marker of the real, the organic, and the new, not least because I remember being similarly struck by the ending of fellow Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. At the end of that film, following the final battle between giant robots and equally giant monsters, Rinko Kikuchi and Charlie Hunnam are left floating on the ocean’s surface, triumphant and with a glimmer of a new romance that will move them beyond their past traumas. In a film that takes place for the most part in and around water, this was the first time I could really sense the proximity of liquid, as if the waterline was halfway up the rims of my 3D glasses. It felt so much more real and awake than the preceding two hours of CGI surf. Likewise, Gravity‘s final shots exploit the tactile familiarity of water, soil, mud to bring us back down to Earth enriched and craving the safety of this dirty planet that clutches us to its surface.

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