Jonás Cuarón and Alfonso Cuarón, 2013
#12, 2013 Skandies

I was surprised when I started this movie up and saw how short it was.  It barely touches the 90-minute mark.  It turns out that the whole thing is basically one long action sequence, and the story time is not much longer than the movie's running time.  I don't normally get a lot out of action movies.  But this is probably the best action movie I've ever seen.

One of the big reasons for that is that it's not combat action — this is a survival story, in the most compelling setting I can think of.  The premise is that a Russian satellite has been blown up and turned into shrapnel that is now shredding everything else in orbit, endangering the lives of a space shuttle crew servicing the Hubble telescope.  The two astronauts who survive the initial wave of shrapnel, which comes while they are in mid-spacewalk, have to find a way back to Earth, even as their options for doing so are being destroyed in front of them: the eventual plan, once they discover the shuttle torn to pieces, is to fly over to what's left of the International Space Station via jetpack, then use its remaining, damaged escape pod to continue onward to the failing Chinese space station Tiangong and try to use its escape pod to make it home.  I've read that the Cuaróns were inspired by the 1969 film Marooned, better known to me and my fellow MST3K fans as Space Travelers, which is also about astronauts stranded in orbit.  But Marooned consists chiefly of alternating shots of the astronauts sitting in chairs and a bunch of NASA technicians sitting in chairs.  Gravity is taut, kinetic, and never cuts away to someplace safe.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that this movie turned out to be a standout — even though it only came in 12th in the Skandies, Gravity ranked #1 for 2013 on Rotten Tomatoes.  But I try to avoid hearing anything about movies before I watch them, so I actually didn't know that this had been kind of a phenomenon upon its initial release. 
The trailer also led me to expect something quite different:
After finishing it, I did read a few reviews to see why other people had liked it, and found that most of them talked about the sheer spectacle — there were a lot of warnings to go watch the movie in an IMAX theater, because watching it on a computer monitor (as I did) wouldn't be the same.  But it wasn't the special effects themselves that wowed me, and in fact some of them were less than convincing.  Then there were the snarkier reviews, which tended to say things like, "Looks great — shame about the parts where people talk."  Which is a fair point.  The dialogue does have a tendency towards exposition and speaking the subtext, and as I watched the story unfold, I could hear a voice in my head relaying the time-honored screenwriting formulas on display: "The main character must have an internal conflict to go along with the external conflict!" "We need a ticking clock here!"  So this movie won't quite make it into my personal pantheon of films.  But the premise alone, and the movie's success in executing that premise, made me inclined to forgive Gravity for the places where it fell short of brilliance.  Here are some of the moments that did wow me:

(and, again, mind the sled here — spoilers ahoy)

  • I thought it was very brave of the filmmakers to have a cast consisting of a grand total of two characters who are more than just voices — and then to kill off one of them half an hour in.  Gravity is a one-woman show for the final two-thirds of its running time.  Very cool.  Of course, the other astronaut's death is initially ambiguous, and I was braced for him to come back at any moment in eye-rolling fashion, so when he did exactly that, I initially took it as yet another example of why we can't have nice things.  It came as a movie-saving relief when he turned out to be a hallucination.  (As for the eventual lone hero of the story — yeah, she wasn't the most richly drawn character, but I liked her fine.  I could tell that she'd been designed to be relatable — e.g., she's a rookie astronaut, on the mission because she's a medical engineer rather than a hotshot test pilot — but I didn't mind, because it worked.)

  • I think probably my favorite thing about Gravity was how it engineered moments that spoke to multiple themes at once.  Again, I found the theme of the main action extremely compelling: a woman is stranded in one of the most hostile environments imaginable — the vacuum of space, where, as the opening titles point out, life is impossible — and must frantically jump from one fragile bubble of temporary safety to another, which involves a lot of clambering around on the outside of disintegrating space stations and ricocheting around in places where one wrong bounce means an eternity of her corpse spinning off into the void.  Her initial bubble of safety is very small and very temporary: it's just her spacesuit, and her oxygen is about to run out.  It has run out by the time she makes it to the airlock of the ISS.  When she finally clambers inside, shuts the door, and turns on the oxygen, she's starting to black out, but the alarm indicating full air pressure rings, and she pulls off her helmet and takes a huge gasping breath… and then pulls off the rest of her suit and floats in the airlock for a bit, luxuriating in having found a whole ROOM full of air.  That's the literal meaning of that moment.  But floating in that small chamber, with a cable behind her that looks like an umbilical cord, she resembles a fetus in the little bubble of safety that is the womb.  And yet!  At the same time she metaphorically travels to before her own birth, she emerges from within a hard white shell, like a baby bird hatching — developing in two opposite directions at once!  And on top of all of that!  This is the first moment in the film in which the protagonist sheds her unisex spacesuit with its squat, childlike proportions, and reveals the gendered adult body inside — a metaphor for adolescence, in what has turned out to be a palimpsest of developmental stages.  That is what I would call, to borrow from the immortal Vern, exceedingly good filmatism.  (And then, just in case we didn't get the rebirth metaphor — in the next scene, she's making her way through tunnels.)

  • About those bubbles of safety: this is a theme I've talked about a bit in previous articles, particularly the one about Titanic, and I find it moving every time I encounter it.  Early on, the two surviving astronauts return to the shuttle to discover that it is now a blown-out husk, and inside it — shortly before the frozen bodies of their colleagues bob into view — we find some toys: a Rubik's cube, a Marvin the Martian doll.  This was home, full of the little frivolous objects that turn a place into a home.  But only a thin hull separated that home from murderous vacuum.  And much the same is true here on Earth.  As I type this, right behind me there is a piece of cloth and a pane of glass that are all that separate me from a cold night that might not give me an instant
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    brain hemorrhage, but which still could conceivably kill me unless I got some assistance from my fellow humans.  And yet I don't feel like I'm a few inches away from a hostile environment.  I feel like I'm safe at home.  Look, my stuff is here.  Even when the protagonist of Gravity is making her way through foreign space stations, there's all sorts of familiar stuff floating around: forks, pens.  And that stuff is really there, in the real world!  Somewhere, 250 miles up, there actually is a little canister with people in it, and pens, and forks.

  • A couple of bullet points ago I talked about how the movie alludes to different stages in the development of an organism; at the end, the movie alludes to the development of life on Earth on a grander scale, as our hero, having crashed her landing capsule in a lake, crawls ashore and struggles to her feet — 375 million years of evolution in a matter of moments.  But again, this movie often has several different themes working at once.  In this case, we see another one as her first attempt to stand up fails, for she is overpowered by the gravity that has been absent throughout the movie.  Gravity is obviously an important theme, given that the film is named after it; for the vast majority of the movie it's conspicuous by its absence, as everything we see is floating in a most peculiar way, and I would say that making us internalize the physics of space, such that the gravity at the end of the movie seems strange, is one of the film's great achievements.  Of course, gravity is never actually absent — it's the reason why the things in orbit are in orbit.  It thus simultaneously represents safety and danger — safety in keeping the space stations from hurtling out into space, danger in keeping the deadly satellite debris from doing the same… then, later, safety in representing that our hero is back on terra firma, but danger in that it threatens to pull her to the bottom of the lake and drown her.  When she does make it onto land and looks up, we see along with her that the remains of the Tiangong are breaking up in the atmosphere, a reminder that space isn't some sci-fi concept divorced from our day-to-day existence: if you go outside, it's right there above you, just a few minutes' drive away if you could drive straight up, and there isn't even a spaceship hull between you and it.  All that shelters us from that unsurvivable void is a gossamer-thin layer of air: look at a cross-section of the earth including its troposphere, and the part where we can breathe represents less than 1/1000 of that radius.  And for the continuing presence of even that much air we have gravity to thank.

Of course — and I'm grateful to report this is a piece of subtext that is left unstated in the film — gravity is also to blame for the death of the protagonist's daughter.  Her little girl slipped and hit her head while playing tag at her preschool, and the fall of three feet was fatal.  Hence the internal conflict mentioned earlier: in addition to the many physical obstacles to survival, the protagonist must wrestle with the question of whether she even wants to live, since she no longer has any connections back on Earth — all she does with her days is work and drive around, she says.  Again, it does feel like a story element manufactured to fulfill a screenwriting formula.  But it also raises the question of what to make of the movie's running theme about the continuity of life on multiple scales, given that the main character is biologically a leaf rather than a branch: she has no surviving children, and is past or at least near the end of childbearing age.  And I think that part of what speaks to me about Gravity is that space is more than just cool.  Eventually we're going to need to head out into space if life that springs from Earth is going to survive.  So by devoting her remaining years to furthering our efforts to explore the universe, the hero of this movie has contributed more to the continuity of life than merely by having some offspring.  Because, in the end, the earth is itself a fragile bubble of safety.  And a temporary one.