Thoughts on Gravity (2013)

Posted on October 14, 2013

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In 1990, as Voyager 1 was leaving the Solar system, Carl Sagan requested NASA to turn around the camera of the space shuttle to take a photograph of the Earth. The photo was taken from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers; you have to look really hard to find the Earth. It is visible as a pale blue dot and that’s what Sagan called the photograph: Pale Blue Dot.

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This is what Sagan says about the significance of the photo:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

… “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

Watching the brilliant opening scene from Gravity, I was reminded of these lines by Sagan. As the film opens, we see little white specks against the wide, unending expanse of space. The camera slowly pulls in and we realize that those specks are actually people. It’s a remarkable opening—confronting us with both our utter insignificance and significance at the same time—and is in some ways, the filmic equivalent of the Pale Blue Dot.

We watch as the astronauts repair the Hubble Space Telescope, jauntily spacewalk, and banter with mission control. All seems routine and somewhat cute, until debris from a nearby destroyed space station enters their orbit and crashes into their shuttle. The astronauts, no longer tethered to the shuttle, are sent hurtling into space. In a jaw-dropping and frightening sequence, we see Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock) spinning away from the rest of the crew. We, then, see what she is seeing and share her confused and frightened point of view before watching her drift further and further away, until she is a distant white dot—all of this is done in a single long virtuoso take.

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But before she is lost forever, she is found by the mission captain, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). The two make their way to another space station, hoping to find some help and it is at this point that the film begins to devolve into an unbelievably egotistical, hubris-laden narrative. The possibility of contemplating our place in this universe, of confronting the frightening beauty and loneliness of space and the humility and awe it should inspire are traded for a clichéd survival story where man, or in this case, a super-toned Sandra Bullock, triumphs. The great, mysterious universe is reduced to a fancy backdrop against which one human being learns to “let go and move on!” The sheer arrogance of that idea boggles my mind. I wish Dr. Stone and Matt had simply floated in space, tied to each other, chatting until they ran out of oxygen or words and surrendered themselves to the enveloping darkness. The survival story felt so wrong, so limiting, so commonplace; I never wanted a character in a film to die so much.

But clearly, philosophical musings were not what Alfonso Cuarón had in mind. After all didn’t the film tell us early on that there is no sound, no oxygen in space and that you cannot survive there, thus, announcing that it is a survival movie, plain and simple. I am willing to concede that perhaps I wanted the movie to be something other than what it is, but the survival movie I am presented with is ridiculously melodramatic, on the nose and laughably clichéd.

The film parades one cliché after another, starting with the killing off of Sharif—the token brown man and dispensable crew member (the new black guy to be the first to be eaten by the bear movie cliché). Then, there is the weakest member becoming the sole survivor; the manipulative backstory about a dead daughter; the hero sacrificing his life so that the girl can live; an escape pod that malfunctions but becomes functional at the last minute; an oxygen-deprived hallucination; the sudden, desperate desire to live accompanied by rousing background music; the final speech and message for the dead daughter (“Mommy loves you very much”, “I found your red shoe”); and the final low-angle shot of our triumphant heroine, also accompanied by rousing background music. I thought all that was missing was for her safe landing to turn out to be a dying dream. In fact, I was determined to sit through the complete final credits, sure that there would be one last scene that shows the charred escape pod being recovered and mission control informing us that there are no survivors, but the folks at the cinema hall didn’t play the complete credits. Not that it makes any difference, after all, what’s one cliché less?

In the end, where Gravity succeeds is as a visual spectacle—the choreography of the opening scenes, the graceful transitions from one set up to another, the long shots and the startling close-ups, the floating camera, and the elegant long takes. If only all these technical accomplishments were in the service of a more interesting, brave idea, it would have been truly something.

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Posted in: Reviews