by Jay Sizemore
When you’re watching Gravity, the latest film from Alfonso Cuaron that was six years in the making, you know you’re watching something special, something inspired, something that stretches the boundaries of its medium and redefines it as a credible forum for artists. This film literally takes your breath away. There are moments of such beauty, and moments of such raw visceral power, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed in them. It’s a film that doesn’t reach its full potential in your mind during the actual viewing, because you’re too busy living the experience. For the first time, a movie has transcended itself, in a way that puts the viewer in the closest state of pure immersion capable from known technology. You feel like you are in outer space. And it is terrifying.
In order for this to work, every aspect of the project has to run on all cylinders. Every gear has to be well oiled. There can be no kinks in the armor, or the whole illusion will fall apart. Nothing can take the viewer out of the experience. Thankfully, nothing does. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney give top-notch performances, the stand-out being Bullock, who turns in the best acting of her career, something awards councils are sure to notice in the coming months. The special effects are unreal. The writing is gripping emotionally and doesn’t go beyond the levels of disbelief an audience needs to suspend in order to be sucked in. With a runtime of close to 90 minutes, short by today’s standards, there is no time to be wasted in the narrative. It’s an adrenaline rush that will have your palms sweating and your legs fatigued from squirming in your seat.
But beyond the typical story arc, there’s something to be said about artistic integrity here, and that is Alfonso Cuaron has it. He had a vision, a story he wanted to tell, and he wanted it to be more than just a simple person battling the elements story. It still is that, but in Cuaron’s capable hands, it becomes a multi-layered painting of thematic elements, all of which work as a cohesive unit, making this movie a true masterpiece of the medium. I want to explore the ways these themes are expressed in the next few paragraphs: SPOILERS AHEAD.
The two main themes examined in Gravity are “letting go,” and “evolution.” Both of these work hand in hand remarkably well to examine the greater, more ambiguous question of, “what is the meaning of life?” From the onset of the escalating conflict of the film, a disaster caused by a chain reaction of satellite destruction debris, based on a factual event that is known to occur in space due to the Laws of Motion, these themes are tackled head-on. When the characters know that the debris field is headed their way, and they have to evacuate immediately, Bullock’s character (Stone) has trouble giving up her current repair project to seek shelter, despite being told over and over that she has to leave it. But in this instance, her delay in evacuating may have proven to be a blessing, as both her and Clooney (Kowalski) survive the initial impact of the debris, while their other counterpart does not. In the evolutionary theme, this is important, because it brings into play the concept of random chance along with survival of the fittest, both of which allow continued evolution and change. On the way to the second shuttle because their own shuttle was destroyed beyond repair, after Kowalski saves Stone from certain death, we learn the second element of the letting go theme, in that Stone had had a daughter that died accidentally at a very young age, something that she still carries inside her as either guilt, or the haunting of the what if factor. Upon hitting the shuttle, another chain of events forces another critical decision for Stone and Kowalski, when one of them must die to save the other. This brings the letting go theme back into play, because Kowalski wants to sacrifice himself so Stone has a better chance of surviving, but Stone doesn’t want to let him go. Ultimately, Kowalski makes the decision for her. This is a moment that also brings up the question of how much our decisions can impact the outcome of our lives, versus the randomness of the universe. Because of this decision, despite overwhelming odds, Stone is able to make it into the shuttle airlock.
Once she is in the airlock, there is a pivotal scene that is our first glimpse of metaphorical imagery, meant to convey the thematic element being explored. Stone, removes her spacesuit, and floats freely in front of a window, beyond which we see the blue glow of planet Earth. She floats in a circle, curled into a fetal position, as tubes and wires hover about her. The image is strikingly similar to a fetus floating in the placenta. It is a clue to the themes of change and evolution, as at this point, her character has survived two critical brushes with death, and she has started the change, the first stage of her rebirth.
The character of Stone goes through several more death-defying moments, including one in which she gives up and relinquishes herself to the slow death of hypoxia, only to have an answer come to her in a dream, that gives her the chance and the strength to continue, to survive against the odds.This dream sequence is the only hint in the film to the idea of the afterlife, and it is handled in a way that could be suggestive to either side of the belief, as a supernatural interference with our lives, or as the brain delivering essential information in the threat of death. Through each stage of her journey, change has been integral to her success: she had to cut free from a parachute, she had to move to avoid a fire, she had to separate from non-essential sections of the shuttle. And through each stage we see the character of Stone becoming more and more resolved to live, to let go of her past, and to fight for her future. When she launches herself toward the final vessel, it is her decision to grab a fire extinguisher that is key to her survival, again showing the impact of human decision in the face of random chaos. On her descent to Earth, we see her finally free of all burdens, knowing that she gave it her all, and she is satisfied with the end result, whatever it may be. Her character has fully transformed. She has let go of the past. She has fought for her life. If she survives, she will be reborn. If she dies, she dies knowing that she never gave up, even when she wanted to. She learned to let go of what she cannot control.
The final scene of the film is the most important. At the beginning, we are told that it is impossible for life to survive in outer space. The entire narrative of the film has reinforced this statement. Surviving in space has been a constant struggle for Stone. When her pod lands in the ocean, it is ironic that for the entirety of the movie, an absence of gravity has threatened to kill her, and once on Earth, it is gravity that almost does her in. The final struggle for change in the face of unbelievable odds, is portrayed as gravity pulls her pod under water, and then drags her under water as well, even after she escapes the pod. Her suit is too heavy. She has to shed her suit in order to swim to the surface. She has to change again. Once she reaches the surface, she is too weak to stand, and she crawls onto the deserted beach on all fours. Once she lies there and breathes for a moment, she is able to push herself to her feet, and stand triumphant, in a dazzling metaphor for the origin of life on this planet and the theory of evolution, and the most effective use of form and content put to film since 2001: A Space Odyssey. There won’t be a better movie this year.
Film Critic Jay Sizemore is a member of The Missing Slate’s Film Team.