More than a story of survival, Gravity is also about perspective; it’s a reminder of just how tiny we are in a universe vast beyond comprehension.
Gravity is a 2013 British-American science fiction adventure film co-written, co-edited, co-produced, and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. It stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts stranded in space after the mid-orbit destruction of their space shuttle and their subsequent attempt to survive and return to Earth.
Revisiting Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity last night reminded me off of a lot of things; first of all, being what an astonishingly beautiful film it is. The opening shot of the distant shuttle and the still-not-visible, because they are so tiny, astronauts working on it against the backdrop of the Earth, and the deep blackness of space is an unmistakable salute to Kubrick’s 2001-A Space Odyssey (1968) and a wonderfully composed preamble to what the film has in store for us.
This deceptively peaceful scene with George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski jetting around the tiny section of space in his little jet pack seems idyllic and calm. However, this scene is short-lived as things abruptly change with the arrival of an unexpected swarm of space debris. The film masterfully creates and uses contrast to dramatic effect with the sudden appearance of the space junk turns the scene into chaos. Gravity is a film of contrasts.
The sudden change in the events on the screen becomes heightened by the lack of sound resulting from what’s going on. Gravity adheres to the scientific reality of no sound occurring with no air molecules to transfer it. Another way the film uses sound is by how tiny the characters’ voices seem in contrast to the vastness of space and planet behind them. The film uses the backdrop of Earth and outer space to significant effect, which helps elevate the movie to its extraordinary beauty and remarkable impact.
One thing that makes this film so successful is how it grounds a lot of the ideas we have about being in outer space. Things are not just peacefully floating in space as we sometimes imagine, but to the contrary, objects in orbit are, for the most part, traveling at a terrific velocity. Some of it moving at the astonishing rate of up to 17,000 miles an hour, a speed that allows it to remain in orbit. The film also effectively reminds us, and brings into sharp relief, that many things we take for granted here on Earth don’t exist in the extraterrestrial environment of outer space. Things like Gravity and the friction that causes the momentum of moving objects to slow down eventually.
The first time the swarm of debris hits the shuttle and platform the astronauts are working on, the objects hit like a flock of miniature freight trains with devastating results. The scene goes from one that seems like a fantastic but routine day on the job to a nightmare scenario in a few quick moments. The film’s opening sequence is done in Cuaron’s signature style of long loving shots, instead of the seconds-long photos later edited together often seen in movies these days.
Bullock’s character Stone’s nightmare experience of being cast off into the darkness of space without any direction or seeming hope of ever surviving is effectively brought home by the spinning camera work that transforms it into a first-hand experience. The sequence that eventually gives way to her eventual rescue by the seemingly near casual, more experienced Kowalski brings home the panic-inducing reality of just how horrifying it would be to go through what she has endured.
Although having a limited role in the film, Kowalski never the less plays a pivotal role in the film’s narrative. He saves Stone’s life more than once, including when he sacrifices himself so that she will have a better chance to live. Kowalski also reappears after he’s long gone as a hallucination when she needs him most to keep her determination to survive alive. Clooney’s relaxed approach to the roles he plays in films works well here.
The film depicts a relentless series of heart-pounding events that ends with Bullock safely onboard the Soyuz capsule, where she removes her spacesuit and floats in the air. The scene helps restore her humanity by showing her in her undies near fetal position, another tip of the hat to Kubrick’s masterpiece. By the time the film pauses to catch its breath, it’s nearly half over.
One of the film’s most memorable and astonishing scenes is when Stone is trying to remove the tangled parachute from the Soyuz capsule, and another swarm of debris strikes. Stone’s character gets shown hanging on for dear life as the space platform is devastated by the high-velocity space shrapnel directly behind her. It is a remarkable scene made all the more dramatic because of the vast ocean of silence surrounding her.
It only pauses for a moment before ramping up the action again. A fire onboard the capsule nearly results in Stone getting knocked out when the propulsion caused by the fire extinguisher she uses pushes her backward into a bulkhead. (a device that appears again in one of the film’s most fantastic scenes) Bullock’s performance is excellent. It’s great. She is memorably effective in her role that calls for her to express the full spectrum of human emotions, including one of the film’s most delightfully charming moments when Stone’s character connects with a man on Earth who only speaks Eskimo-Aleut who is talking about his dogs.
I could go on and on about this film and what makes it so beautiful, unique, memorable, and a masterpiece of filmmaking, but that would require more space and time than available to me. The film’s excellent qualities did not go unnoticed by the public or other filmmakers either. At the 86th Academy Awards, Gravity received ten Academy Award nominations and won seven, including Best Director (for Cuarón), Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Score. The film also received six BAFTA Awards, including Outstanding British Film and Best Director, the Golden Globe Award for Best Director, seven Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, and a Bradbury Award. It is a fantastic film.