Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

18 November, 2013

Life in Space Is Impossible: Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

Alfonso Cuarón proved himself to be a fan of the long take in Children of Men but the opening sequence in Gravity would surely make Orson Welles envious. (Although Aleksandr Sokurov might not be quite so impressed.) The opening shot lasts somewhere on the order of 15 minutes as the camera glides in and around two astronauts who are working on the Hubble Telescope outside their space shuttle which is parked in orbit around our blue globe. George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, a NASA veteran on his last mission. He is outfitted with a propulsion pack thingy that allows him to remain untethered to the shuttle or its robotic arm. As Dr. Stone, played by Sandra Bullock works on a faulty circuit board, Kowalski zips around like a kid with a new toy lamenting all the while that he won't be the record for longest spacewalk.

Soon enough the fun ends as mission control in Houston interrupts the proceedings by announcing that the Russians have destroyed one of their own satellites and that the debris will be making its way to their position. They are to abandon their mission and return ASAP. Ryan is sure she can finish her repairs quickly and ignores Kowalski's order to return to the shuttle. Regardless, the debris is upon them and rips through the robotic arm keeping the Hubble in check. Our astronauts are flung off into space.

In 3D and on the IMAX screen, Cuarón's visual representation of angular momentum makes for one of the most visceral cinema experiences ever to be had. The camera follows Ryan as she is flung from the wreckage ass over tea kettle out into space. It was truly harrowing to watch her summersault her way towards the void in a panic, unable to stop spinning or figure out where she is in relation to the shuttle. Kowalski, however, has the propulsion suit and comes to rescue.

Tethered together, the pair make their way to the shuttle only to find that it too was ripped apart by the debris and that the other astronauts did not survive. Kowalski then points to their next destination, the International Space Station where a Soyuz module should be available for a return to Earth. Ryan's suit is running out of oxygen and she remains panicked. Kowalski is the definition of calm here and he tries to take Ryan's mind off of their desperate situation by engaging her in some chit-chat. He asks her what awaits her when she finally returns to Earth and we learn that her daughter had been killed.

We also learn that, in the film, when it rains, it pours. Approaching the ISS, our heroes see that one of the Soyuz modules is gone and that the parachute of the remaining one has already been deployed. They crash land onto the structure but, due to momentum once again, it proves difficult to get a hold of anything. Ryan's legs get wound up in the parachute's cords but manages to grab Kowalski's suit. Realizing that both oxygen and time is running out, Kowalski detaches himself from Ryan so that she may go on.

And she does. Ryan makes it inside the ISS where tragedy once again strikes and she gets into the remaining Soyuz capsule to escape the debris which is coming round again. Trapped in an unmaneuverable craft, Ryan despairs before she gives up. She shuts down all of the systems and prepares to fall asleep never to wake up again when a face appears in the window. Kowalski opens the hatch and lets himself in. As cheerful as ever, he immediately sniffs out the obligatory vodka bottle before encouraging Ryan to carry on using the knowledge she has from her flight training. Kowalski is gone in one oneiric poof but Ryan has gained a new lust for life and is determined to make her way to a Chinese space station where she will find a functional escape pod and finally get home.

Gravity is a resounding success as the cinematic equivalent of a roller coaster. The CGI, flowing camerawork, and 3D all combined to make me feel as if I too were stuck in orbit and gave me case of vertigo. Cuarón also deserves credit for refusing to cut to scenes of mission control in Houston and instead keep the viewer immersed in the peril that the astronauts find themselves in. He also pulled one out of the 2001: A Space Odyssey playbook and made sure that there was no sound in space. Instead we heard what Ryan "heard" when her space suit came into contact with objects. Plus there was the spectral music of the soundtrack and Ryan panting for breath.

While the movie's style and verisimilitude all contribute to a visceral experience, the thematic material presented here by Cuarón is thin gruel. Ryan's adventure in space – the disasters, the capitulation, the rekindled desire to live, and rebirth are all supposed to reflect upon her inner life. (At the end, her capsule crash lands in a lake and she removes her space suit so she can swim back to shore where she emerges from the water in her underwear a la Ripley in Alien.) The tether to the shuttle's arm is akin to an umbilical cord and emerging from the water onto terra firma is an allegory for birth. But we learn so very little about Ryan that the allegorical elements are reduced to the barest of footnotes next to the vast 3D spectacle of her survival in space. Religion pops up but only in the form of a Russian Orthodox icon on the Soyuz dashboard and a Buddha on the dash of the Chinese capsule. This is a joke and not some commentary on religion.

You have a character lost and facing death in the most remote, secluded spot that we humans can currently and realistically get to yet all Cuarón can give us is an action/survival tale with some ham-fisted allegory. Just imagine what Werner Herzog would have done with this scenario. Mankind as a mere mote in relation to the vastness of the universe, fate, people driven to extremes – this is fertile thematic ground.

I appreciated that Cuarón utilized stylistic elements generally associated with art film like very long takes and his refusal to cut away from the action in orbit to create such an immersive thrill ride but, in the end, it would have been nice had he taken the opportunity to also inject some food for thought into the movie as well.

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|| Palmer, 5:35 PM


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