“In space, no one can hear you scream.”
— Advertising campaign, Alien (1979)
“Life in space is impossible.” So begins Gravity, which notes in an epigraph as well the reasons for this assessment, namely the lack of air pressure and oxygen. Still, people go into space, and people survive in space by building machines (suits and vehicles) that simulate an atmosphere more like the one on Earth, an atmosphere that includes air pressure and O2 and a means to carry sound, that is, to communicate.
This concept especially pervades Alfonso Cuarón’s film, which follows the increasingly dire experiences of two people in space, medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and shuttle commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Near film’s start, as she is replacing parts on the Hubble Space Telescope, they are suddenly beset by a hurtling, altogether frightening debris field. The damage is catastrophic: they can’t get back to Earth on their vehicle, the Explorer, and they can’t communicate with NASA, a.k.a. Houston, voiced in the film’s early minutes by an unseen Ed Harris — so very perfectly, the man who played John Glenn in The Right Stuff, a movie made 30 years ago, and a movie about men’s first efforts to get into space, in machines.
That you never see Houston or anyone else on Earth, that you never have a sense of the planet, is the initial instance of Gravity‘s genius. The plot, such as it is, is comprised of Ryan and Matt’s efforts to survive in space long enough to return home, an end that is from its start, impossible. And so, just a precious few minutes into the movie, you’re invited to wonder whether that very impossibility is its premise, that what you’re watching is the fantasy of an individual already dead or dying. Certainly, this scenario seems reasonable, one that needn’t be resolved but might instead hover at the edges of your experience, even as you’re immersed in a valiant struggle, the work of brilliantly reluctant-heroic types to match or surpass or reinvent viewers’ desires.
Ryan and Matt are great as means to this end. The rookie on this excursion, she offers up a sympathetic, if contrived and too dauntingly metaphorical, backstory, one that explains her limits and also her astounding courage. The veteran Matt, in turn, brings solace and wisdom, in pretty much the perfect package, as Clooney cajoles and jokes, soothes and distracts. That he fulfills the role Clooney does in your own mind makes him seem a bit fantastic, which is fine too, as you ponder, or at least observe, the impossibility of this plot. As Matt and Ryan serve as archetypes, which is not to say only clichés, exactly, they fulfill your desires and then some. And in so doing, they are parts of a movie that both expands the possibilities of movies and also lays out their limits.
Among these is the story, which in Gravity becomes increasingly preposterous, as bodies are banged and burned, careening and somersaulting. They endure what they might never endure, they find ways to persist that aren’t even close to a coherent suspension of disbelief. They ask a lot of you, and they give back, in generally heroic and sometimes satisfying ways. Such satisfaction is generated most forcibly in its thrilling visual compositions, in its fabulous CGI and grand vision (in Imax, perhaps especially so), in its construction of space, looming and endless, that makes people and satellites and planets too look puny, and in its close-ups, faces reflected in windows and rack-focused with the space they contemplate. These images are all consuming and also, wholly distancing. You’re aware that you’re sharing in multiple artists’ aesthetic inventions, that this is fantastic and you know it’s fantastic. This distracts from that silly plot, which propels forward, whether or not you believe it. True, the film doesn’t quite trust you to understand that space without the sound that cannot be carried, and so it adds all manner of special effecty sounds, as well as Steven Price’s monumental, sometimes overbearing score, as well as a number of instances when the astronauts are talking, about themselves, about their fears or their surprises, and so offering far too much explanation of the metaphorical enterprise in which they are involved.
This talking goes on without Houston once communications with earth are lost following the onslaught of debris, a plot point that poses an existential conundrum even as it also allows Matt to declare his raison d’etre and the film’s own most impossible conceit: even in silence, you speak, you seek to communicate or connect, because, as Matt phrases it, you never know if someone (say, Houston) can hear you. Just because Houston is not responding, that doesn’t mean you can’t hope it does, and that such hearing will lead to rescue or resolution or some other impossible plot point. You might as well talk, Matt informs Ryan, who is, no surprise, more inclined than he to silent fretting owing to a personal trauma. And so he shows her how to create another space, a communicative, mutual, even musical space, with words and noises. That is, the sorts of sounds that make movies make sense, even when the visuals are, well, preposterous: Ryan slams against the shuttle or is panicked out of her mind, and the sounds — her breathing, the banging — make what you’re watching at least vaguely coherent, coherent enough for you to follow.
This familiarity, which might be understood as an effort to appeal to viewers (if not ensure an audience and so, put more crassly, money), is combined in Gravity with frankly stunning originality. The film is a puzzle, pieces interlocking and coming apart, a story that unravels and also seduces you. If the movie isn’t an exercise per se, it is an exploration of what might be done — in and by movies — to convey or imagine an impossible experience. In this, it is a forward-looking film, creating experience out of whole cloth, as it were, dressing it up with familiar plot and other details so that it might be more familiar to you than it could possibly be. If it’s not plausible that certain physical events might occur or that certain human bodies might survive, that’s kind of okay too, because the film is not about what’s feasible, but about what is impossible.
That’s the story of movies in a word, how they imagine for you, how they help you to imagine, how they might change your thinking. Of course, they might also confirm notions that might need changing, assumptions about moral or political or even physical frameworks. Gravity asks that you think about these more lasting effects, apart from but also inherent in its computer-generated effects. And for that, and despite its distractions, its sad mother and veteran charmer, its astronauts and ham radio connections, the movie is gorgeous and moving, more about possibility than credibility.