I saw this at a press screening the week before it opened. I then went to see it in an IMAX situation on Sunday. Even on a smaller screen in a private screening room, the film is overwhelming. It is only with perspective that I can even perceive a weakness in the film, but I find that weakness to be completely irrelevant when matched up with the sheer power and force of what I saw. That is so rarely the case as to be almost unheard-of. The screening room was on 55th and 6th. I was taking the bus home so I walked to 42nd and 8th, after the screening. It’s a bit of a hike. Maybe a 20-25 minute walk, especially with all of the crowds in the Times Square area. Throughout that walk, I was still in the grip of the film. I was still rotating and circling in the air, I still felt that tug of vertigo, and the final moment’s great humanistic image was still refusing to let me go. I wasn’t fully out of the experience until I woke up the following morning.
AND. AND. Best of ALL. Gravity is 91 minutes long. It’s not 3-plus hours long, which has become almost par for the course with these big intricate action films. It’s almost as though efficiency has become a lost art.
I have heard the film compared to 2001. It takes place in space and it confronts the vastness of space head-on, so there’s that. There’s the horrifying image of an astronaut floating untethered in the void, a common human nightmare of disconnection and abandonment. Gravity explores that, for sure, that’s what it’s all about. But 2001 was cold (not a criticism, just a description), and Gravity is hot. Hot with empathy, emotion, and feeling (in one or two places too much of it). I think a more apt comparison would be with something like Touching the Void, or Apollo 13, or Open Water, survival films that examine human reaction to almost unfathomable disaster. There is also the added factor that human beings are not built to survive in the environments depicted in these films. In Touching the Void (the documentary based on the true story), one of the climbers finds himself at the bottom of a gigantic ice crevasse. The situation he finds himself in is not akin to Tom Hanks on a desert island, where he can crack open coconuts, catch fish, and sleep on the beach. He is in an ice crevasse high up on a mountain in Peru and he either finds a way out NOW or he dies in the next 24 hours. It’s the epitome of the word inhospitable. People who have found themselves in such situations often talk about nature, or the environment, as feeling almost like a malign presence, something that is out to get them, to crush them. This is an accurate assessment. Nature is not benign, it is red in tooth and claw, and if you stray beyond the boundary where humans are supposed to go, you are often made to pay. Jon Krakauer, in his book Into Thin Air, says that at one point during the storm that engulfed his team trying to climb Mount Everest, he realized that if he died, no one in their right mind would ever consider it a tragedy. Because human beings weren’t supposed to be up on that mountain in the first place. And he got such a clear visceral sense of that, it was as though Everest itself was saying to him: “You are not supposed to be up here, human. And so here is what you get for thinking you can conquer me.”
The visuals in Gravity are astonishing, and it’s a full-immersion experience from the opening shot. The film doesn’t ease you into its dizzying world, it thrusts you into it from the start and expects you to catch up. Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki (director and cinematographer) have worked together to create that world, and while people have been having fun fact-checking the film (and there have been some very interesting folks weighing in), what I was struck by was the almost unbelievable sense of reality in every frame: the light, the way it moved, the way the shadows fell, the sense that you were in a three-dimensional space, when … you’re NOT. It’s a MOVIE. And everything was green-screened. Amazing.
One of the things that really struck me is something I’d never actually thought about before: how you can’t slow yourself down out in space, you can’t modulate your movements or how you move through space the way you can in our atmosphere. It was one of the most horrifying aspects of the world portrayed in Gravity. You approach an object, and the collision could be deadly. You could whiz by the object, not get a handhold, and not be able to do a damn thing about it. Space itself is immense, and the abysses between stars are empty. There’s nothing to grab onto. But Gravity takes place just beyond our atmosphere, in what is a pretty crowded belt of space, circling Earth. There are satellites, space stations, debris. These objects are like buoys in the ocean. Hand-holds. Yes, everything is circling in its own fixed spot, but when something goes wrong … as it does … and stuff starts MOVING within that fixed belt around earth … the impacts are devastating. And just beyond that belt, where Earth appears as a gigantic blue and white sphere filling up the periphery, is the black void of the Universe. There’s nothing to hold onto out there. It is the ultimate unknown.
Falling just half a foot is a terrifying experience. Often, on the edges of sleep, I’ll feel like I’m falling and jerk myself awake, in order to avoid the horror of free-fall. When you fall, you lose control. Your arms grasp for something to break the fall. Gravity‘s entire 91 minutes lives in that freefall space. It’s one of the ways it works. And it works on a primal level, something beyond intellect or analysis. Seeing Sandra Bullock spinning in space in her spacesuit, unconnected to anything, set adrift, “off structure” as she gasps into her little microphone, is so terrifying that you just ache for it to be over. You ache for it to stop. You can’t even LOOK because the empathy-factor is so enormous.
There is one moment in the script that (upon reflection) I wish they had considered cutting. It’s just slightly overcooked.
Sandra Bullock is amazing. My favorite parts is when she, under the gun, has to figure shit out. That is WORK. That is what it looks like. She’s reading the manual about lift-off, and has to remember her lessons from the simulator training, in a life-or-death situation. This is the reality for astronauts. It is made palpable just how incredible these people are, these people who go up there into that unknown. George Clooney plays a relaxed wisecracking version of himself, which was a perfect foil, and almost subversive once the film really starts to unfold (in its second half – although the whole thing feels like one event.) Here’s the thing. Sandra Bullock is 49 years old. When Bette Davis was 49 years old, she started doing more television, and leading lady film roles were increasingly hard to find. When Joan Crawford was 49 years old, she was still showing up as a leading lady (and, frankly, always would, when she would appear in films), but the properties were less interesting, the budgets lower. We’re in a revolution now, a pioneering phase of the industry. Meryl Streep is still opening films. You could never characterize her as a supporting actress. Those who don’t like her acting are certainly free to feel however they want to feel, but to not GET what she is doing to expand opportunities for actresses over normal leading-lady age, should not be ignored. There are many others. It’s a new world now. There still isn’t room for a lot of older lady parts, but that’s true for men as well. A lot of actors will have to take what they can get. The fact that Sandra Bullock is the star of a gigantic special-effects art-film, which is raking in the dough, is important. I was thinking to myself: This so easily could have been made with a guy in her role. But we’ve seen that before. I am so GLAD that they went the female route, and I am so glad that it wasn’t a 20-something woman, or a 30-something woman, but a 40-something woman. I take these things personally, and if you care about culture, you should too.
What is subversive here is that even I – who proudly considers myself a feminist – felt so relieved when George Clooney showed up again. Now this is partly because he was the experienced astronaut. But it was partly that, “Oh, thank God, the man is here, he’ll take care of things.” I believe this was deliberate on the part of the filmmaker. When I saw it in a packed movie theatre, the entire audience breathed an audible sigh of relief when he showed up, and a couple of people clapped. This is a valid response, but it is also one that should be investigated. It’s important to ask Why. Why was I psyched he showed up? Could it be it’s because I feel safer with a man at the wheel? And really sit in that question. I think the film wants you to sit in that question.
So. Yes. As a woman, I was proud that a woman had to figure shit out on her own, and made mistakes, and freaked out, and took a second to cry (I felt impatient with her, thinking, “THERE’S NO CRYING ON THE SPACE STATION” – although I probably would have cried a couple of floaty-zero-gravity tears as well, in her position), and then realized that – like Morgan Freeman intones in The Shawshank Redemption, you either get busy living, or get busy dying.
That’s what Gravity is about. That’s what really reminded me of Touching the Void, that moment when Joe Simpson, trapped in the crevasse, had to make the horrifying choice to go deeper into the crevasse, HOPING that he could find a way out down there in that blackness. Amazing balls. And with a broken leg. But that was the clear choice: stay there (which meant he would have been choosing death) or venture downwards (because even if he died down there, it meant that he was choosing to TRY to live).
And that is the choice placed before our heroine in Gravity. And she has to be beaten into submission by the events unfolding around her. Nature is brutal. Outer space is brutal. It WANTS to kill her. It has zero mercy. It does not care that she is tired, that she is crying, that she doesn’t know how to operate the computer. It is going to continue doing what it is doing, and if she wants to survive then she needs to straighten the fuck up and fly right. We’ve seen men in that position so many times in cinema. Women have also shown courage and heroism in cinema, but just not as often, and not in this type of material. Sigourney Weaver broke new ground in the Alien films, which still have resonance, and you wonder if she would have been cast if the film were being made today. The character is not a Lara Croft superhero. She’s human. She’s capable but she is stretched to her very limits over the course of the film. (This is one of the many reasons I admire/love G.I. Jane.) In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character is not equipped to do what she needs to do. She doesn’t know enough, she doesn’t have enough experience. But she needs to figure it out or she will die. It’s that simple.
I have heard people complaining about the backstory given to her character. I don’t have a problem with it. I do admit I felt a slight tightening of anxiety the first time I saw the film because I feared that the script was going to try to be a “redemption narrative” rather than a survival narrative. You know, she finds inner peace through her experience of disaster, and it’s the inner peace that is more important, because that is what we value in our culture now, how things affect us PERSONALLY, and how we grow/learn/change, that which does not kill us makes us stronger, and I find that whole thing gross and I didn’t want Gravity to go that way. Gravity doesn’t go that way. Astronauts talk about something called the “overview effect”: what it feels like when you first see the world from outer space. It’s a life-changing consciousness-changing moment, and only a handful of people have had that experience first-hand. Astronauts are not poets (I am reminded of Jodie Foster’s awe-struck moment in Contact when she sees the swirl of a galaxy in the wormhole, and tries to describe it to those listening back home and finally says, “They should have sent a poet!”), they are scientists and test pilots, who can land aircraft on heaving aircraft carriers in the ocean, and risk their lives, and problem-solve under the gun … They are not guys given to reflection. But listen to astronauts talk about their first moment seeing the earth, and listen to them talk about the overview effect. It’s profound. (NPR did a whole show about the overview effect.)
I won’t say that Gravity gave me an overview effect, but it did give me a glimpse of what people who have had that experience must have felt like.
And the final shot, marred only by that one script thing that I wish they had cut … is profound. She looks like a sea creature deciding to shed its fins and try walking on land. She looks like the evolutionary process at work, in process. She is both monstrous and divine. She is awkward, like a Frankenstein monster, or an alien being, trying on human form. Her body seems gigantic and statuesque, and yet somehow fragile at the same time filmed from below as she staggers to her feet. She is the standin for all humanity in that moment. Humanity, its beauty, its fragility, its awesome powers of strength, creativity, and gumption. And, back to the subversive nature of the film: Women rarely represent all of us, in film. Who knows why. Maybe it’s because the majority of filmmakers are men. We see the world through their eyes. And I’m not complaining, not necessarily. I wouldn’t trade in John Ford, Howard Hawks, Stanley Kubrick, PT Anderson, Hitchcock, and all the rest for the world. But it is assumed that men can’t relate to women as being representative of themselves. And it is assumed that women CAN relate to men as representative of themselves. (You know: women are meant to assume that we are included in the word “mankind”. Examples abound.) This is how the culture operates and I’m sick to death of all of it.
Gravity, on that subversive level I keep mentioning, works as a welcome corrective. Ironically, considering the fact that the film takes place in a world with no oxygen, it felt like oxygen POURED into those tired old tropes, those cliches that I find so boring, and gave them new and interesting life. It asks the male members of the audience to look at Sandra Bullock as a standin for themselves, who they would be, and how they would feel and act in a similar situation. Good. We’re all part of the same species. We’re in this thing together.
I’m still in the film’s grip. I want to catch it again in IMAX before it disappears.