For every dozen observations on the experience of entering outer space akin to John Glenn’s (“To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible. It just strengthens my faith.”), there’s an astronaut whose subjectivity hews closer to that of Werner Herzog assessing the chaos and brutality of nature in Grizzly Man. Such as Loren Acton musing, “Looking outward to the blackness of space, sprinkled with the glory of a universe of lights, I saw majesty—but no welcome.” Or Charles Walker admitting, “Close to the window I could see that this Pacific scene in motion was rimmed by the great curved limb of the Earth. It had a thin halo of blue held close, and beyond, black space. I held my breath, but something was missing. I felt strangely unfulfilled. Here was a tremendous visual spectacle, but viewed in silence. There was no grand musical accompaniment; no triumphant, inspired sonata or symphony.”
Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant, terrifying adventure Gravity drives home the primal dread that informs the two latter quotes right from its opening titles, explaining that in space there’s no air pressure capable of carrying sound, no oxygen capable of sustaining life—an assurance that also opens most versions of the movie’s sound effects-laden trailers, an indulgence on Warner Bros.’s part. The vastness of space doesn’t bring this film’s astronauts closer to God; it brings them further from their grasp of humanity, a perspective that even without the first-act events that set the rest of the film into motion would be hard for almost anyone to process. Sandra Bullock is Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer who’s been recruited by NASA to assist on a mission to replace parts on the Hubble Space Telescope. Working alongside Stone is Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran shuttle commander who’s basking in his final run of a long and storied career. Kowalski is understandably glib and chatty, torturing ground control with the same inane stories he’s subjected them to for decades, whereas Stone is focused and cagey as the two work to complete their mission in the dead, weightless lurch of orbit some 370 miles above Earth.
The entire setup for Gravity is contained in a single, unbroken shot that signals the paradoxical lack of the titular force (the Explorer takes a good three or four minutes to move across the frame from imperceptible blip near the Earth’s horizon to the eventual close-up) against the unthinkable velocity of orbit speed—17,200 mph near the International Space Station. Comparative momentum becomes the movie’s guiding principal when debris from an exploded Russian satellite leads to a chain reaction of catastrophic collisions and sends shards of metal slamming into the Explorer with Stone and Kowalski still outside the ship. Their only hope to get back to Earth is to make their way to the ISS and board one of its Soyuz escape modules. And Stone’s oxygen is running low.
Stripped down, lean, and taut, Cuarón’s film may be either the most expensive avant-garde movie ever made or the most approachable, mass-appeal experimental work of art—like WALL-E’s “define gravity” dance writ on the scale of Erich von Stroheim. If seeing Earth from above for the first time left astronauts like Glenn feeling like they’d just been born again, Gravity’s simple muscularity restores wonder to cinematic representations of outer space and reinstates the integrity of blockbuster filmmaking. Cuarón accomplishes his effects by apportioning the barest elements of pop filmmaking into categories that can be defined by their relative absence or their heightened presence. Trimmed away are the simple carbs of traditional narrative arcs, character development, and unnecessary editing. Saturated to the hilt: ambulatory cinematography, myriad trajectories of physics, pulsing music cues from neophyte Steven Price, astonishing negative space. Would that Manny Farber could still be alive today to drink this in.
If all Cuarón managed to accomplish with Gravity was an invigoratingly clean, elegant display of action choreography, it would still be a benchmark and a startling synthesis of outré and popular models: a La Région Centrale you could still take Grandma to see. But Cuarón’s tangle with the coldness of the infinite isn’t just a formal exercise. It’s also an existential reckoning of the tension between deific presumptions and the silence mankind deeply hopes is just a test of faith. The movie’s most inscrutable and eerily beautiful image doesn’t even involve zero-gravity obliteration, but rather the slowly flowing rotation of Stone in fetal position after she’s reached ISS and removed her spacesuit in the airlock. Suspended in nothingness, she resembles nothing so much as Stanley Kubrick’s Starchild—one of a few subtle parallels Gravity makes with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Having been robbed of her daughter years earlier in a mundane accident, Stone has been disabused of her role as a perpetuator of human life, a link in the chain of God’s great plan, and thus her will to survive registers as a new form of consciousness. If Kubrick insinuated mankind’s evolution belongs within a narrative orchestrated by a higher power, Gravity’s draining, disorienting final scenes suggest humanity’s will to survive amid theistic doubt is just as cosmic.