Alfonso Cuarón | 1hr 31min
“Life in space is impossible,” Alfonso Cuarón tells us in the opening seconds of Gravity, and there is little that unfolds over the next ninety minutes of tight, suspenseful storytelling that would suggest anything different. Up in this hostile, black void where space junk moves faster than bullets and the slightest technological malfunction can lead to instant death, Earth is further away than ever, and yet it rarely leaves our sights. All through the film, it sits there in the background of Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous IMAX shots, offering a distant promise of safety to those astronauts at the centre of this tale navigating an unfriendly universe.
For Dr. Ryan Stone, crewmember of the Space Shuttle Explorer, it is a world she has deliberately run from, numbing herself to its joys and tragedies by consuming herself in a desolate emptiness. Gravity spells out its metaphor of depression and rebirth with little ambiguity, and yet this does not imply that there is a lack of nuance in Ryan’s characterisation or Cuarón’s thrilling narrative. Rather the opposite – it is in its heavy symbolism that Gravity reaches back to our most primal instincts, evoking the warmth of a womb as Ryan curls up into a foetal position, tethered to the space shuttle she has sought refuge in by what might as well be an umbilical cord. Later, the sound of crying babies over a radio signal inspires a connection to her own past as a mother, and her eventual emergence from water to land is attached the archetypal image of evolution, tying her back to the very roots of her humanity. Much like Cuarón’s previous effort, Children of Men, Gravity displays a philosophical approach to visual storytelling, opting for bold images and rich, humanistic allegories.
The other significant similarity worth drawing between the two films is the collaboration between Cuarón and Lubezki, who together unravel scenes of action and mayhem through marvellously choreographed long takes, refusing to release us from the grip of the narrative. No doubt the most impressive and engrossing one of all is the opening shot lasting 13 minutes, slowly drifting the Explorer into view above the Earth while its passengers float around its exterior on a spacewalk. Here, there is no sense of spatial orientation in the camerawork, which rolls and spins in wandering motions and latches to characters as if connected by an invisible bungee cord. Ryan and her playful commander, Matt Kowalski, are given just enough time during this setup to reveal their polar opposite personalities before the reveal of satellite debris hurtling their way. Chaos dominates as the ship is ripped apart, and it is only when Ryan’s connection is severed and she is left spinning into the depths of space that Cuarón finally cuts, physically marking the point in his narrative that a new complication emerges.
As we grow more familiar with our leading woman, the visceral vulnerability of Lubezki’s cinematography continues to extend beyond disorientating camera movements, and eventually fixes itself to Ryan’s face in an anxious close-up, helplessly tumbling further away from home. When her breath starts to fog up the glass, the camera drifts inside her helmet to take her perspective, effectively bridging the gap between the cold objectivity of space and the sensitive subjectivity of her own mind.
Emphasising this tension even further is Cuarón’s unique approach to sound design, fully realising the chilling potential of a vacuum where the only existent noises are those which reverberate through radios and within one’s own helmet. The sound of giant ships colliding with sharp, metallic objects and being violently torn to pieces amounts to nothing but silence here, confronting us with the merciless indifference of the universe. Instead, it is voices, breathing, and heartbeats which meet our ears, accentuating the most human elements of scenes that otherwise threaten their survival. Given the minimalism of these soundscapes, there is additionally a lot of heavy lifting done by Steven Price’s music score in coordinating suspense, blending orchestral and electronic sounds while emitting any percussive instruments that throw off conventional rhythms.
Even within Gravity’s screenplay though, Cuarón and his son, Jonás Cuarón, develop a propulsive narrative which is simple enough in its structure, and yet holds us tightly in its vacillation between pitiless violence, heartbreaking sorrow, and hopeful anticipation. For as long as Ryan remains in space, the orbiting space debris will just keep hitting her in waves, effectively setting multiple 90-minute deadlines for her to make it from one safe refuge to the next. Much like the grief she carries for her deceased daughter, this recurring threat traps her in a cycle of destruction, formally tying her immediate circumstances to her larger character arc, pulling her from the depths of despair to a rediscovered taste for life.
For Sandra Bullock, the ability to carry such an emotional journey through scenes with no other actors is a truly impressive feat indeed. George Clooney is just present enough as Kowalski in early scenes to offer a light-hearted counterpoint to Ryan’s despondency, revelling in the extraordinary delights of their work that she carries out with routine monotony, and it is in his eventual death that she undergoes yet another process of grieving that she is well-acquainted with at this point. The difference in her reactions to both instances of traumatic loss make are notable though – rather than distancing herself from humanity and escaping into space as she did following her daughter’s passing, the grief she finds in Kowalski’s sacrifice reinvigorates her desire to ground herself once again.
In this way, the black void Ryan tenuously navigates through Gravity becomes a potent visual rendering of her depression, pushing Cuarón’s narrative beyond the genre trappings of science fiction and into the realm of profound spiritual allegory. It is not through dialogue that he draws these parallels, though there are certainly pieces of mystic curiosity that are present in pieces of dialogue that ponder the value of prayer. It is rather within its restless, floating camera and graceful symbols that Gravity evolves into a cinematic wonder, teasing out that compelling tension between bleak, barren emptiness and a determined embrace of life.
Gravity is currently streaming on Binge and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.