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“I can never get out of here/
I don’t want to just float in fear/
Dead astronaut in space…”
– Marilyn Manson, “Disassociative”, Mechanical Animals, 1998
If I had to guess, I’d say the adult appeal of space travel is the pure sense of escape. As a child you want to be an astronaut because you want to be everything, from doctor to firefighter to Speed Racer. At that impressionable age the sky truly is the limit, so why not shoot for the sky itself?
Once you get older and life has crushed your ambitions from unlimited optimism to just-hoping-you-don’t-step-on-dog-poop-whilst-on-a-coffee-break, you tend to regard space as you would a tropical island, an amusement parks, or simply one hour in a sensory deprivation tank: as an escape. Space is silent, meaning you don’t need to hear anyone complain to you. Space is weightless, so there is no person or obligation weighing you down. Most of all, space – as its very name implies – is empty; it’s not just you and only for as-far-as-the-eye-can-see, it’s like that for an infinity. Who wouldn’t want to spend some time there, if only for a short while?
But, like all good things, there is a dark, uncomfortable, and outright dangerous element to space. It isn’t all red-planet rovers and guitar-strumming Canadian space commanders, no. There are asteroids, blankets of radiation, solar flares, and quantum singularities out there – all trying to kill us. It’s almost a moot point whether or not aliens exist, there are plenty of other hostile forces in the universe that that would wipe us out if given the chance.
But isn’t that comforting? Think about it: if you were to walk out of your house and stand in the middle of the street, there are a number of things that could kill you before you even knew it – and have most likely tried over the course of your life: family-inherited illness, an enemy with a grudge, or even just an absent-minded motorist. All of these things and more could easily have erased you from this shiny blue pearl spinning ‘round a big ball of flame in the middle of the vast emptiness. Think of all the reasons you shouldn’t be here and take solace in the fact that you’re here. Doesn’t it make you want to make the most use of what time you have left?
Miles above Earth we find a group of astronauts doing a tune-up on the Hubble Space Station. Said astronauts include medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). All goes more or less routinely, until a catastrophic series of events on Earth result in the crew losing communication with Mission Control and debris damaging their shuttle.
With nowhere to turn for help and no real sense of what’s happening on the surface, the inexperienced Stone and veteran Kowalski have to find a way to shelter themselves from the debris and simply survive in the cold, silent void of space.
(Essentially it’s this Killing My Lobster sketch remade with millions of dollars)
Let me get this out of the way first: do NOT see this in 3-D. I didn’t. It’s not needed. I plan on one day writing an entire entry dedicated to futility of 3-D (not to mention the price-gouging that comes with it), but if you have an option as to whether or not you can see it sans 3-D, choose that one. I respect director Alfonso Cuarón’s decision to shoot it the way he wanted to, but it is no more essential to the viewing experience here than it was for the Final Destination movies. 3-D isn’t like colour or wider aspect ratios which give a wider range of cinematic options. No, 3-D is a migraine-inducing, image-darkening alteration to what was already a good image. The other two options can be necessities; 3-D will always be a gimmick.
Rant over. So what did I think about the film itself?
It was pretty damn good. Not perfect, but pretty damn good. I won’t pretend that I’m an expert in astrophysics – those who are have given thorough analyses on the film’s scientific credibility – but I will say that the film definitely leaves the viewer with a plausible (and frightening) impression of space. The feelings of weightlessness, lack of inertia, and silence are expertly presented by Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. That, along with Cuarón’s still-present penchant for unbroken long takes, make the audience feel as if they are floating right there alongside the characters. Their feelings terror and lack of control feel real to us, even as we sit comfortably in our chairs. I know I said I wouldn’t go on about 3-D for the rest of this review, but I just have to point out how affective this all was during a normal 2-D screening. Getting this feeling out of the audience is less about technical gimmicks and more about skillful storytellers.
And it is because of the story in which I find myself giving the film a less-than-perfect grade. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but the most of the film deals with the inexperienced Stone trying to survive without the direct aid of Kowalski. Once I suspended my disbelief enough to buy that Stone’s lack of mental fortitude would even allow her on that mission (as the link above states, there’s no way in hell she’d pass a psych eval – even I know that), I’ll admit that I got into the story from her point-of-view. The whole “rookie thrown into the deep end” scenario is clichéd as all hell, but it works because we’d all like to believe that we’d rise to the occasion when the moment called for it.
There’s just one scene in particular that didn’t work for (though not for the reasons you’d think). Again: I will NOT spoil it, but you’ve probably seen it commented upon by many critics and viewers. It features a moment when the chips are down and there is no hope. Then suddenly, through the miracle of “deus ex machina”, hope returns. Many who don’t like this scene have a problem with its sexual politics – a familiar problem in Cuarón films – but not me; at least, not entirely. No, my real problem with the scene is that it doesn’t reach it appropriate conclusion: death.
I read the film as a recollection of one’s life so that they may accept the inevitability of their own death. Family, children, parties, friendships, employment – all are things gained during life and all vanish after death. It is the one inevitability of existence. Not knowing what takes place after, if anything, naturally makes it terrifying, but one must still accept it as an inevitability – often coming without warning or comfort. The scene in question not only first seems to acknowledge this, but it seems to be granting the character involved something not everyone can afford when the end comes: peace. We should all be so lucky. By taking that way with an oh-so-convenient intervention (which is not all that it seems) is something I found incredibly condescending.
And yet… I get it. I said above that when that we are hard-wired to want to make the most of the time we have. It’s the reason we don’t all go committing suicide from the moment we come out of the womb – we are meant to live. Dying is just a side effect. As such, the instinct to fight death is as natural as living itself. There is a moment in the film where Stone, in fact, does “return to the womb”, proverbially speaking. It works as a subtle homage to Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and as a character going through a spiritual rebirth. One ending doesn’t necessarily have to be THE end.
(See also this award-winning Martín Rosete short from earlier this year)
The performances are okay. I’ve seen both actors do better work, but the way they each performed their characters was decent. Even the voice of Ed Harris as Mission Control was used to great effect.
A bold choice was made by Cuarón by making such a big-budget mainstream film that had no antagonist. The characters aren’t at odds with any evil computer, alien invaders, or enemy astronauts (as near as we can tell); they’ve just found themselves in an impossible situation and have to think their way out of it. We spent so much of our lives looking up to the stars, rarely do we consider what we’d do if we ever got there. Should we ever have the opportunity, we can only hope we measure up to the characters seen here.
I viewed Gravity in regular 2-D at the San Francisco Metreon on Sunday, 13 October 2013.
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