And I looked up at the sun, and I could see/
Oh, the way that gravity turns for you and me.
Note: Some spoilers ahead.
One of the common political talking points about space exploration from those on the fiscally conservative end is how economically unviable it is. How is it, these people argue, that we can even think about spending billions of dollars on trying to re-create Star Wars when there are so many economic woes here on Earth? When one considers that a great deal of current space exploration doesn’t require the use of astronauts, with unmanned deep space exploration becoming the norm given the additional costs of using humans, the final frontier is increasingly less likely to experience a human presence.
Economic cost is one thing; philosophical and personal costs, however, are arguably more tremendous. In recent years, an intriguing subgenre, which I’ll label “metaphysical science fiction” has come to fruition in a major way. In 2006, Darren Aronofsky released his long-delayed meditation on death, The Fountain, which includes amongst its interweaving storylines the journey of an astronaut—occupying a sort of eco space bubble—toward a dying star he believes to be the location of the Mayan underworld.
A year later, Danny Boyle’s divisive, underrated masterpiece Sunshine hit the theaters. What seems like the setting for a sci-fi actioner about a group of scientists trying to save humankind by igniting the sun with a “stellar bomb” (science fiction, remember) instead turns into a meditation on the limits of humankind’s ability to preserve itself. It then controversially leads into a slasher flick coda that has to be seen to be believed.
Both of these films were not unprecedented in their blend of meditative thought and thought-provoking futuristic settings; both owe a great deal to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in that regard. What unites all of these films is their interrogation of humankind’s desire to go out into space. Legend has it that the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales was was walking along a dirt road one day, looking up at the stars as he did. Upon tripping and falling into a ditch, a nearby woman asked him, “How could you possibly look up to the stars, Thales, when you cannot see what is at your own feet?” Metaphysical science fiction poses this same question to its viewers. Famed Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, responsible for weighty fare such as Children of Men, is the latest to pick up this mantle.
Right from the first frame of the movie, a striking juxtaposition manifests itself. The most talked about feature of Gravity are its superlative visual effects, which remain impossible to look away from even if one doesn’t have an IMAX 3D screen in her home. The Blu-ray transfer, either in standard or 3D format, is a visual feast unlike anything one is likely to see for some time. This is, after all, space that Cuaron is trying to capture, that endless, unfathomable, inky black vacuum that even the most advanced astronomists struggle to grasp. Getting the verisimilitude of being out in space requires emphasizing its unending hugeness. The scientific merits here are, of course, not perfect (cf. the observations by cinema’s resident science fact-checker Neil DeGrasse Tyson), but in terms of capturing a lifelike if imperfect representation of being alone and terrified in space, Gravity is all aces.
Gravity‘s plot, however, is at best spartan. The film only consists of two characters—excepting Ed Harris as the disembodied voice of the “Houston” astronauts tell their problems to—and one of those characters is absent for the majority of the story. And, at 90 minutes, Gravity doesn’t waste any time; those worried about getting dizzy during the many protracted shots of astronauts spinning out into space shouldn’t worry for long. The straightforward, clean-cut aspect of the story might lead some to think it too spare for its own good, but to quote an essential Lebowskism, “the beauty of the thing is its simplicity.”
There does arise some unanswered curiosity when the instigating event of the Hubble Telescope’s destruction—Russia’s destroying of one of their own satellites by missile—but, in this case, a simple story told as magnificently as this one is hardly seems simple. When one further considers the four-year development and filming period for Gravity, “simple” becomes a word that’s only superficially accurate.
Moreover, as Mick LaSalle rightly observes, “Alfonso Cuarón has made a rare film whose mood, soul and profundity are bound up with its images.” Storytellers often get so caught up in conceptualizing space to inordinate levels of detail: what kind of ships populate its interstellar highways, what life there might be on other planets; some people will dive headfirst into book series like The Wheel of Time without even imagining what it would be like to be just out of the Earth’s atmosphere, looking down on the planet in its entirety.
This is what Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, in a mesmerizing performance) realizes as she goes up with Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, living up to all the playboy jokes made at his expense) to repair the Hubble Telescope. Space gets sold as an endless frontier of exploration, but few are able to grasp the genuine terror that comes when floating out in that formidable void. The film’s expansive visuals, courtesy of English visual effects firm Framestore, tell countless stories yet untold in their unparalleled cinematic magnitude.
The visuals may be the uncontested star of Gravity but the actors aren’t causing any slack in the line. Clooney’s role is the one noticeable weak point of the movie; in the Blu-ray’s extensive documentary, Cuarón’s son Jonas, a co-writer of the film (who is quite forthcoming about how he interprets it), admits that it would have been a harder film to make were it just one person in space by herself, which formed a the main motivation for the character of Kowalski.
Be that as it may, even though he is relatively underwritten, Clooney gives it his all, laying on the charm that led to one of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s best Golden Globes monologue jokes. But it’s Bullock that steals the show, a feat impressive both for her own innate acting abilities and the fact that she spent a good deal of her scenes in a specially designed rig to simulate the weightlessness of space. It’s no exaggeration to say the film is hers entirely; it has to be, given that the tension and terror that unfolds centers on the pains both physical and mental deriving from isolation.
Gravity confronts the viewer with the inherent limitations humans face upon trekking towards the stars. One of the movie’s strongest scenes is its conclusion, when Stone arrives back on Earth after a hail mary escape via a Chinese space station’s lone remaining escape pod. After frantically swimming out of the water in which the pod landed, Stone slithers onto dry land, unable yet to stand up: the new being emerging from a primordial liquid. Her fatigue is explained by just having spent several hours facing death eyeball to eyeball in the cosmic nothingness of space, but there’s a symbolic resonance here as well.
Stone is no astronaut by profession—why it is that she, a medical doctor, is out in space in the first place is never made entirely clear—but she nonetheless has just felt the existential weight of unencumbered isolation. In space, existence is drifting; the only thing tethering together the stars, planets, and other galactic points of reference is the (im)precise whims of gravitational pull. In coming untethered from the world she calls home, Stone has faced the first reality of space, one that’s easy to picture in the abstract but impossible for anyone but astronauts to claim to know: endless endlessness.
In space, as the saying goes, “no one can hear you scream.” This is true, but even larger than that is the simple truth that in space there is no one. Travel any farther than the International Space Station and all one will encounter is the solar system we’re still striving to understand and the vast galaxies, of which we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface. Stone, then, becomes a microcosm of humankind: so very small, so very outnumbered by the universe that surrounds her.