It’s hard to appreciate ‘Gravity’

Gravity Sandra Bullock 1

Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” appeals to that human primal instinct to survive. This is a survival story. Its straightforward narrative, plotting one astronaut’s encounters with an unrelenting flood of troubles and perilous circumstances, bears out the movie’s title card statement that “Life in space is impossible.”

While Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) repair the Hubble Space Telescope, a nearby Russian satellite is destroyed, sending a torrent of debris that rips their Explorer shuttle and few means of survival apart.

This is simpler and more nerve-racking than stranded-at-sea suspense where the sharks of “Open Water” gave us a biological life form as the object of our fear — here there is no life.

In “Gravity,” it’s debris, loss of communication, tools floating away in the absence of gravity, lack of oxygen, lack of fuel, &c.  In other words, the characters are up against an antagonist made up of everyday scenarios gone wrong.

In this way, the motion picture suggests what we take for granted could endanger our lives. What becomes the film’s dominant visual motif – holding on to something or someone.

At its most basic function, we know gravity grounds us. It holds us down. But here in zero gravity space, the characters drift. There’s nothing holding them anymore.

As such, the characters rely on tethers and handles to keep from floating away. The movie repeatedly taps this motif of holding on to something or someone. Stone holds on. Kowalski lets go. Stone can’t escape the station because the chute is tied up, &c.

When Stone’s spacesuit weighs her down in the water, it’s not the absence of gravity threatening to kill her as in space but the opposite.

But it’s not simply a phenomenon of physics working (or not) here. Stone is learning how to move on her own without holding on to something, someone (Kowalski, child’s death) as she uses the fire extinguisher in space and then takes her first step on earth. She navigates zero gravity and then later refuses to be pulled down by it.

The storytellers lay this notion of “holding on” on real thick. Kowalski shows up and analyzes Stone’s already one-dimensional psychological point of entry: the death of her daughter and her comfort in the silence of space where “people cannot hurt her.”

Before “going to sleep,” Stone hears from three progressive wheedlers of human sympathy: a dog, an adult and then a baby. Kowalski treasures his connection to earth and other people, listening to country music, competing with another astronaut’s space-walking record, sharing tales of his experiences in Texas and at Mardi Gras.

After Kowalski’s angel visit reminding her of all this (a jumpstart scene for Stone and for the audience), the music swells (face-palm) and Stone finds her will to survive (bullet-to-the-brain).

Gravity Sandra Bullock 2One of my movie partners, picking up on the theme Cuaron refers to as “the possibility of rebirth after adversity,” immediately recognized the shot of Stone floating in front of the circular hatch, in the fetal position, as something of a human embryo.

The tether holding Stone to Kowalsky or to the shuttle (which you would refer to with feminine pronouns like any other ship) acts like an umbilical cord. Later in the escape pod, Stone makes the choice not to abort her mission and, in the end, emerges from the water, or embryonic fluid, and takes her first step.

Though maybe a stretch, seeing in “Gravity” an extended metaphor for conception, pregnancy and birth is at least a reading consistent with the thematic material Cuaron’s previous movie, “Children of Men” (based on a very poorly written novel by the dull Anglican writer, P.D. James).

There are other similarities, too. In “Children of Men,” a world suffering from under-population is given hope through the birth of a child. The child’s mother is named Kee, a reference to Christianity’s Chi-Rho symbol for the Greek word for Christ.

Kee and her child are guided by Clive Owen’s character Theo (from the Greek theos for God, but also short for Theodore, meaning “Gift of God”). In the same way, “Gravity’s” Stone is guided by Matt Kowalski (Matt being short for Matthew, which, in Hebrew, also means “Gift of God”).

Since Kowalski points out how odd Stone’s first name, Ryan, is for a woman, I don’t feel an attention to the names and their meaning is an arbitrary detail to investigate. That her last name, Stone, bears connotations of “heavy” in zero gravity is ironic. That her first name, Ryan, comes from some Irish word for “little king” or that Kowalski’s Polish last name comes out “blacksmith,” a shaper of metals (or that Ryan Stone sounds a lot like “rhinestone,” an imitation diamond or adornment jewel) is lost on me however (and may mean nothing — I simply became curious). The Inuit she speaks to in the pod is named Aningaaq, meaning “moon,” and he acts, for a moment, as a satellite of Stone, a type of Mother Earth.

Regardless of these birth and name digressions, the movie just does not earn Cuaron’s theme of “rebirth after adversity.” The rebirth in “Gravity” is a false one, carried to term by a narrative of endless mishaps and weakly drawn characters. I’ll try to unpack this with another detour.

“Gravity” isn’t the first movie to explore space or life-threatening situations faced by people in it. Here, Ed Harris voices Mission Control in Houston, a role he previously played in “Apollo 13.”  But unlike “Apollo 13,” any communication with Houston goes dark, isolating the astronauts in “Gravity.”

The adversary faced in “Gravity” is not a corporation with a wickedly monotone robot (“Moon”), blue-glowing, tribal cannibal aliens (“Pandorum”), a cataclysmic asteroid (“Armageddon”) or even H.R. Giger’s provocatively designed “Alien.”

In Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” man advances through multiple stages of evolution perhaps influenced by the Monolith, but certainly marked by an inbuilt violence. From the apes to astronauts, violence defines man. The first thing that HAL, artificial intelligence created by man, does is commit murder. Violence is built so deep in man’s nature that even man’s technological innovations reflect their maker. When Dave Bowman becomes the Star Child, Kubrick asks, “Will man repeat the cycle of violence?”

I don’t buy into the common assessment of Kubrick’s pictures as “cold” or “pessimistic” (“2001” yearns for an evolution not of man’s outer nature, but his inner one; “A Clockwork Orange” is an argument in defense of human free will, and so on).  But in “Gravity,” any manifestation of violence, sin, evil, what-have-you, on the part of its characters is completely absent. Even in the most optimistic humanist view, “Gravity” does not merit the triumph and resurrection/rebirth it illustrates.

“Rebirth after adversity” — what adversity?  The debris and loss of communication in the motion picture’s first 13-minute long take are just some of the initial misfortunes in a long series of crises for Stone and Kowalski. But Stone and Kowalski are nothing more than victims. One escapes, one doesn’t (and that Kowalski doesn’t survive serves no other purpose than to depict the danger, a counterfeit loss).

Gravity Sandra Bullock 3This brings me to the biggest problem in “Gravity,” a story built only on establishing the life-or-death stakes and ensuring a payoff for the viewer. The movie borrows its narrative formula from the slapstick comedy conventions of something going wrong, then something else, then something else, ad nauseam.

Reliance on this formula is a growing trend in movies and television shows (“Weeds” used it comically and dramatically while other shows, like “Breaking Bad,” have employed it solely for hyper-dramatic ends).

I am not saying Stone & Co. should have faced some material adversary. If Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solyaris” is any indication, you do not even have to have corporeal foe. The conflict between man and nature in “Gravity,” of man surviving in space is an artificial one. The only remotely compelling conflict in “Gravity” is Stone’s psychological deficiency, but it is so feebly structured (especially in comparison to the psychological study in “Solyaris” or even the pat truths in “Moon”) that, as a viewer, I was left with little to enjoy but the “thrill of the ride.”

But for me that thrill was lost after that first shot. Something will go wrong. A breather. But wait. Something will go wrong again, &c.

That same laziness in narrative structure applies to its technique as well. Others have already discussed this more eloquently than I could, so I’ll quote the relevant bits here.

Jake Cole, in his post, “Anti-Gravity: Why Alfonso Cuaron’s Space Odyssey is Shortsighted about Long Takes,” addresses

“Compare the unrelentingly plotty use of takes in ‘Gravity’ to progress along possible rescue locations to the way that the best classically mounted long takes fill in the spaces outside direct action. Take the opening of ‘Touch of Evil,’ for example. As the camera follows along a busy street tracing the movement of a car with a bomb planted on it, the scene is, directionally speaking, as straightforward as can be. Yet it is the bustle that Welles puts around this action, the almost comical amount of pedestrian traffic and—in the restored version closer to Welles’ original wishes—the cacophony of street noise that gives the shot its power, disrupting the otherwise simple countdown by prolonging the shot’s tension, as well as defining the wild culture of the film’s border town setting.”

The linear storytelling in “Gravity” follows similar narrow goals with its camera, only showing the audience what it expects but never showing the audience anything outside of those expectations.

It strictly follows the action, never departs as Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Welles (or even Max Ophuls to whom the three are indebted) were notorious for doing, to have the camera assert its will against our own to include a perspective or detail we would not imagine on our own. Cuaron’s camera sets out on a dumbed-down routine.

Richard Brody, in his post, “Alfonso Cuaron’s Generic ‘Gravity,’” puts it well.

“But he (Cuaron) has created those sensations generically, with no difference between the subjectivity of his characters and the ostensible appearance to a camera of those phenomena. He offers point-of-view images that are imbued with no actual point of view. The movie, with its near-absolute absence of inner life, presents a material fantasy that flatters the studious humanism of critics who honor the attention to so-called reality—which they define in terms of physical phenomena and everyday people . . . . ‘Gravity,’ ultimately, is a perfect example of the liberal cinema of excitement, of quietly moralized entertainment that’s self-congratulatory in its choice of method and perspective. It rigs the rooting by fixing its meticulous gaze on characters endowed with fine feelings that admit of no wild excess, filtering out any troubling desires and controversial ambitions. It celebrates humanity by reducing the spectrum of human life to a narrow consensus of decency.”

Gravity George ClooneyAnother related aspect of “Gravity” illustrating its thin story boundaries is its plea to the viewer to enjoy the spectacle of space while only representing it as a harbinger of death, only a sign of terror.

Since space is not just the background for “Gravity’s” story but one of its subjects as well, it’s unfortunate that space draws such a short straw. There is nothing in “Gravity” to convey a sense of both awe and terror, what Edmund Burke or William Wordsworth might call the Sublime, before the zero gravity void.

“Gravity” exchanges the natural Sublime of space for a Sublime anchored in Stone’s triumph, soaring, being snatched down through the atmosphere by earth’s gravity (the primary means by which “Gravity” seeks to overwhelm our rationality with emotion is by identifying with Stone’s feat).

The audience is treated to a few opportunities to be in awe of the earth through POV shots allowing us to marvel at the vistas of our globe from above (or Kowalski’s comments about the view or about seeing the sunrise over the Ganges) — but not space, that cold blank dark blanket Stone’s spacesuit spins away in.

In Danny Boyle’s underrated “Sunshine,” Cliff Curtis plays the Icarus’ onboard psychologist, Searle, who stares into the face of the sun by incremental degrees. Searle, a psychologist tasked with exploring the nuances of human behavior, becomes obsessed with confronting the Sublime. He’s looking into the face of God.

Pinbacker, the admittedly silly, mad Russian zombie pirate captain in “Sunshine’s” third act is at least thematically consistent – he can’t reconcile the sublimity of a sun which threatens to destroy because of both its heat and its lessening intensity. So Pinbacker goes mad whereas Searle (and eventually Capa) resolves to be absorbed in the mysterious Sublime.

And that’s the sort of thing science fiction is best at (and should be): not providing cheap thrills regardless of how “realistic” it is or isn’t, but immersing an audience in a speculative world, some place which provokes ecstasy and reflection, Sublime or otherwise.

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