You know that space is full of junk, don’t you? Orbiting the earth in varying sizes and layers are tens of thousands of items jettisoned during the space race, as well as decommissioned satellites and other debris. The attitude that once prevailed towards the oceans as big enough to accommodate all sorts of sewage and rubbish, was the same attitude that was adopted toward space – it was seen as ‘Big Sky’. The theory was that the vastness of space meant that it was fine for NASA and other space agencies to discard their waste into the Big Sky, as these items would likely fall out of orbit and if they did re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they would probably burn up in the process. Gravity is a film which helps the man-in-the-street consider the seriousness and the implications of this problem. Like, for instance, imagine if your smartphone was no longer able to use GPS to help you to navigate?
The film plunges the viewer into the story without preamble as we see experienced astronaut, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), propelling himself scarily towards the blackness of space with a jet pack, and then back towards the space shuttle Explorer while Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), works on its outside. Houston (voiced by Ed Harris, a familiar voice to Apollo 13 film fans) warns the USA team that some unconstrained space junk will be flying through the shuttle’s orbit. Little do the Explorer crew realise that this junk has more speed and power than a missile, so they are unprepared for the devastatingly destructive power of the debris that hits the space shuttle. Stone spins into space calling plaintively to Kowalski and Houston for help, then ultimately calls pathetically to the universe, “Help, anyone.” It’s too soon into the movie for it to end with her character drifting into nothingness, but director Alfonso Cuarón does milk the scene for the unexpected horror that it conjures up for the viewer. Stone is adrift in the black sea of space, but worse, she’s tumble-turning repeatedly, cut off from Earth comms, gulping her oxygen and facing the nada of a space void.
This film is as luminous as the sunrise on the Ganges that Kowalski enthuses over, it has a design quality that is as bright as a streaking meteorite, and it has breathtaking cinematography; aspects of filmmaking which were rewarded by Oscars for: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing. Bullock is on screen for almost every shot and her performance in Gravity is stellar, which explains her 2014 Oscar nomination for this role. (But Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine eventually took the Academy Award.)
My mini-gripe with the movie is the unnecessary and mawkish inclusion of Ryan’s daughter’s tragic story. It added nothing to the characterisation and should’ve been dispensed with. Ryan’s strength of character is revealed over and over again as she copes with one disaster after another, bringing to mind spiritual and philosophical questions, in the same way that Cuaron’s Children of Men did. The theme of isolation and tenacity that has been explored in films like, Tom Hanks’ Cast Away is explored in Gravity too. My favourite scene in a movie that has many photogenic moments, is when Ryan howls in space about the empty space she feels within herself and then cries zero-gravity tears that form spheres, as they float away from her face. We’ve all been in that place where we shed self-pitying tears at the hopelessness of our circumstances, hoping fervently all the while, that some greater being – God, Buddha or ‘The Cavalry’ – will respond to our pleas for help.
Gravity navigates a fine line between offering deep ideas and presenting a thrilling, realistically plausible film set in space. The contrast between the opening scene of man ‘swimming’ in space and the closing scene where (wo)man swims in a sort of primordial soup, certainly leaves lasting questions in the viewer’s mind about whether modern man’s technological advancement is sustainable and worthwhile. Leaving the deeper messages aside, Gravity is worth watching for its awe-inspiring visuals and white-knuckle tension alone.