- Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón
Having watched 2001: Space Odyssey (Kubrick US/UK 1968) projected in a cinema the week before seeing Gravity it was hard not to treat 2001 as a touchstone for the more recent film. Both make remarkable use of visual effects, but the tone of each is very different. 2001 is meditatively obscure, while Gravity is action-based clarity. Empire’s reviewer observed, ‘Actually, it’s as if Kubrick and James Cameron formed an unlikely creative alliance (God knows who made the tea): the meticulousness of a chess grandmaster applied to the blood-rush of matinée excitement’.1 Where Kubrick told a story in which time and space seemed limitless, Alfonso Cuarón’s story merely occurs over several hours, with Earth almost always in view. Despite this more confined time and space, the camera and actors are unbound. Gravity, or its absence, is at the heart of Gravity, and Cuarón and his team rely on a complex choreography of cameras, actors, lighting and visual effects to portray the environment of their story.2 [End Page 441]
Gravity opens with a black screen on which appear statements conveying the hostility of space 600km above the Earth’s surface. Once the film’s title appears, the rising score abruptly stops on a cut to a partial view of Earth filling four fifths of the screen, a slow silent turning view of the planet rotating into 3D depth. As the stunning blue of the ocean and swirling masses of cloud give way to a landmass, a small speck in space gradually gets larger and radio transmissions become audible. The small speck turns out to be an American space shuttle whose team is fixing the Hubble telescope. We are introduced to only three members of the team: Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Shariff Dasari (Phaldut Sharma). Kowalski and Shariff are experienced astronauts and comfortable in space. When Shariff finishes his task he dances (still tethered to the open Shuttle bay), and Kowalski, test-driving a thruster pack, has the freedom to whizz around the shuttle. For Stone, being in space is new and uncomfortable: we see her queasily holding on to the telescope part she’s fixing, and hear that her biometrics signal significant degrees of stress. The pacing of the scene quickly shifts to introduce the life-threatening disaster of a rapidly approaching shower of space debris, which kills all the crew bar Stone and Kowalski, and destroys the space shuttle. In the aftermath of the disaster, told in a seamless continuous sequence lasting for 17 minutes, Gravity focuses on Stone’s efforts to survive. As the story unfolds, we also learn that she is coming to terms with the death of her daughter, leading to a scenario in which the question is not only whether she can survive but also if that is what she wants. The metaphor of rebirth used to explore Stone’s ability and willingness to survive is something of a weakness. By going from hunched up and queasy, to curled and foetal while surrounded by floating tubes, then finally crawling out of water when back on Earth, the filmmakers pound the metaphor with a pile driver. In an otherwise impressive film, and given the diversity of women’s lives, limiting Stone’s narrative of survival in this way seems a striking failure of imagination.
Re-visiting the film through Blu-ray extras reveals where the imagination and abilities of the filmmakers and actors do impress with their dynamic choreography of camera, actors, lighting and visual effects. Watching Gravity for the first time in 3D at an IMAX, it’s easy to get caught up in the roller coaster ride of the film, even dodging ‘debris’ to everyone’s amusement. The opening sequence evokes microgravity through the performance of weightlessness, camera movements rotating in arcs through 360°. In the breakdown of the shot ‘Stone’s Rebirth’, where Stone enters the International Space Station (ISS) following Kowalski’s self-sacrifice, the extent to...