The advent of new technologies ignited by the mobile phone and the Internet has targeted society deconstructing it to its core, individualizing consumerism at a global scale. Things that were cumbersome and impossibly expensive and could only be acquired by big companies are now portable and easily accessible to anyone, with more capabilities than ever, and our sense of space and time is being shaken by the fact that you can do anything from your electronic device. Man is now connected to the whole planet, and in a near future, he will be able to satisfy his needs without even leaving his room or engaging in social activities. Notice that I don’t use “WE” or “US”, since this evolution leads to the knowledgeable and communicated isolated individual and not a society.
Bringing this to the movie arena, you will realize there is an ever growing tendency to depict isolation, not in the way of old Hollywood, where films revolve around the lone hero/sole survivor (like Ripley in ‘Alien’) but in telling the story of a character completely detached from human contact like Tom Hanks being stranded on an island in ‘Castaway’ and having to build human connection with a basket ball; and in some cases connected to the world through an electronic device like Ryan Reynolds in ‘Buried’ a film made entirely inside a coffin where the hero wakes up, trapped, not being able to move, not knowing where he is (geographically) and given the means to communicate (and keep us entertained) through his cell phone. In 2013, we had Tom Cruise by himself in a desolated planet in ‘Oblivion’, Robert Redford’s one-man-show in ‘All Is Lost’ as he tries to sail solo around the globe, and Sandra Bullock’s ‘Gravity’ as a survivor of a terrible accident outside Earth’s atmosphere.
This tendency comes from different sources: technically, the compactness and ample possibilities of the video technology (Hitchcock’s dream of making a movie in a phone booth, or Orson Wells need to dolly through a glass window without cutting are now a thing of the past) makes for a more visceral experience the audience can relate to. Here the videogame plays an important part in what we look for when we seek entertainment: we want to be part of it and the new technology makes sure you’re inches from the action. Budget wise, production will always embrace the casting of one (or two) big stars and eliminating all the unnecessary supporting cast and extras. After all, all the moviegoer cares about is the star. And finally, the idea of individual power: reinforcing the audience’s decisive strength towards self-accomplishment. So ‘Gravity’ is the latest in a new trend of isolation films, leaving aside social conscience for a more personal and man-centered universe.
‘Gravity’s main objective is to make each viewer experience an intense event and to come out alive and satisfied. Ron Howard’s ‘Rush’ had the same approach when he placed his cameras so close to the race scenes you could feel your own adrenaline boiling. Alfonso Cuaron’s film is the closest we will ever get to float in space using Bullock and Clooney as our avatars. Every scene has been designed to make you "feel", with the camera going around in the space's weightlessness, or going inside Bullock's helmet to hear her heavy breath.
The expertise Cuaron shows in orchestrating space walking and the subsequent catastrophe is sustained by NASA as a very close-to-real depiction, and it is so breathtaking that, if it’s true the brain doesn’t recognize what is true and what is fiction, we will be profoundly traumatized by how the film depicts our helplessness in outer space. Not that this is something new anyway. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (by which this film should be analyzed and not compared) already included the idea of how humans adapt to the constraints of life in space, with a dual feel of greatness (we’ve conquered space) and submissive humbleness (take your helmet off and you’re dead).
Like Kubrick’s film, ‘Gravity’ begins with a warning (life in space ceases to be) and a majestic view of our planet graciously revolving around the sun (shown as a tiny light that embellishes our planet, as if the only reality that matters to men is Earth). Beauty and horror united in the beginning and clashing with the perfect use of sound (it reminded me of what Spielberg did in the opening of ‘Close Encounters of the third kind’ with the dark screen that is suddenly interrupted by a blinding light).
In a space ballet (this time without Strauss’ Also Speech Zarathustra), we see how quiet and smooth life is on a space station. Clooney (the mission’s captain) floats around the ship as engineers slowly work in zero gravity. The film’s careful visuals are so crisp and pure that function as the magician’s trick to cover the editing, so you will have the illusion that Cuaron uses no cuts but a long fluid take. And yes, it is a trick, because special effects are there to help. There’s a scene that begins with a close up of Clooney marveling at our planets tranquility. Then the camera moves up to right pan through a huge image of Earth until it arrives to Clooneys’ face again on the other side. This trick of editing and special effects is repeated throughout the film with different results and it gives the sense of continuity merging in one scene a great vista with a minuscule detail; sometimes giving you the impression that you’re going to run out of air. This is not new in Cuaron’s canon though. He used it before, more noticeable in ‘Children of Men’ in the most violent war scenes.
We are introduced to Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone (“What kind of name is that for someone like you?” asks Clooney), and in truth, it is a name that can be male or female, you or me. She is testing a complex component and is evidently seasick, even if she is safely attached (by an umbilical cord) to the ship, so when its time to abort the mission because some debris from a space accident is flying fast in their directions, she doesn’t quite see the big picture immersed in her minimalistic and precise responsibility and surrounded by the weight of whole universe.
Cuaron here gives us a very specific story development where the characters have a materialistic and practical function, but cleverly infuses every action with a precise dose of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ to balance the mere functional with human purpose and the metaphysical, hence translating Kubrick’s philosophical and religious themes to the audience of the new century.
After a rare Tarkovsky moment, when Ryan is visited by the image of her savior (who functions as her own conscience during a life-and-death moment), Cuaron continues with more Kubrick’s appropriations, for example, when Ryan is able to enter the Russian station, and save her life, her first reaction is to take off her heavy uniform and rest floating in a fetus position (just as it happens to Bowman in Kubrick’s film. This image takes new meanings if we consider the fact that Ryan’s life was shattered after her daughter died in a “stupid” accident rendering any personal desire unnecessary or simply non-existent.
Clooney’s Matt Kowalski displays the same drama-free attitude. In fact, he is more like Ryan’s blithe spirit (they do not fall in love but they speak the same lingo). When we meet him, he is floating in space and telling jokes with the punch line “I have a bad feeling about this mission” (which, of course, ends up being a real premonition). We know very little of his past life and he is not afraid of dying. In fact, he embraces it with no drama or remorse. When we know about Ryan’s personal tragedy, we have the feeling Kowalski might have had his share of terrible life experiences to get to this point. And his late appearance as a spirit underlines his ethereal function. You realize that without him, Ryan might not have found the strength to save herself.
At this point, saying that Ryan makes it to the end of the catastrophe is so much a revelation as saying the ship sinks at the end of ‘Titanic’. First of all, we’re talking about the unsinkable Bullock, and second: all the efforts in the movie are put on how to survive different levels of difficulty (yes, once again, like a video game). So having her die at the end is not an option.
And in the last Kubrickan moment, Ryan gets back to Earth (remember the stellar child at the end of 2001?). She sinks with the Chinese capsule that brought her back home and has to take her heavy astronaut’s uniform off (again) to be able to go back to the surface and “breathe” for the first time. She then finds soil and with difficulty is able to stand on her feet for the first time and start to walk, as much as a child would. Cuaron has come full circle narrating the story of survival as rebirth and our cyclical return to our roots. And yes, it was “one hell of a ride” as Ryan and Kowalski frequently quote.
For those who need a final reassurance, yes, this is one of the best films of 2013, and its successful opening week, with the added value of Bullock's strong performance, is enough to make it a sure contender at 2014's Oscars.