The Human Quest

Film review: Gravity (Director: Alfonso Cuarón)

By Sascha Krieger

The blue planet: At the beginning of Gravity, the earth moves slowly into view, inhabiting a dark, silent universe. The silence is broken by faint radio communication that gradually grows louder as a space shuttle appears, first as a dot, then slowly growing larger. It is a long, slow, quiet opening sequence that sets the stage for Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film.  Three astronauts are doing some repair work on the Hubble telescope, the focus is on seasoned commander Matthew Kowalsky (George Clooney) and scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). The atmosphere is loose: Kowalsky tells funny stories and plays country music, Stone is focused on her work, when suddenly a Russian missile meant to destroy a disused satellite caused a chain reaction: debris from countless satellites and other objects turns into missiles destroying the shuttle and sending Kowalsky and stone on a lone quest to survive – alone in space. A nightmarish scenario and yet not one entirely implausible. Debris is more and more clogging then earth’s orbit, attempts at getting rid of things in space manifold and often short-sighted. This is one theme of the film, coupled with the human hubris of controlling nature – or, in this case, the entire universe. On the other hand, Gravity is a tale of human perseverance, of the strength the will to live can instill, and also of the power of human sacrifice.

https://stagescreen.wordpress.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifLittle of this is new, yet the way Cuarón tells his story is entirely his own, even though he quotes extensively from science fiction classics such as Andrey Tarkovsky’s Solaris (Clooney also starred in Stephen Soderbergh’s remake) or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – a Space Odyssey. The sense of aimless drifting, of losing control is there, as is the feeling of loneliness in a hostile infinity. As in Kubrick’s masterpiece, technology is friend and foe alike, rescue and damnation employ the same instruments. It is Gravity’s strength that there is no overt criticism in man’s often blind belief in the value of technology, his hubris to be the master of the universe he knows. Yet it is all there: in the hypnotic imagery, the startled faces, the toy-like fragility of these technological masterpieces we have sent spinning around our planet. In all this, the human is as vulnerable as ever. When Stone reaches the assumed safe haven of the International Space Station (ISS), we see her floating in a fetal position in front of the circular airlock. This is, of course, a nod to 2001 (as is the opening sequence), but it is also a powerful image of human vulnerability. Stripped of all technological support, the human being is naked and helpless.

But it is also a rebirth: Stone, relying on training and countless gadgets, is entirely at a loss when unexpected disaster strikes. She has to battle her fears and face her demons before she can believe in a chance to survive. Sandra Bullock is impressive in her portrayal of this broken, hurt, desperate yet stubborn woman, who is, as we all are, groping along alone in eternal darkness. Her character is given her power by Kowalsky who shows her what humans are capable of doing for each other. Only then does she start believing in herself. Gravity takes much of its power from this combination of survivor story and meditatively philosophical science fiction tale. Man’s hubris fails, but the will to survive remains. This is the key difference to Solaris and 2001: Cuarón chooses to believe in the human strength, in humanity’s ability to change – one self and one’s course on earth and within our universe.

Gravity has its very own pace, the pace of zero gravity, of floating in a vast, infinite and ultimately hostile space. A space in which the elaborate constructions humanity has built seem ridiculous, like badly made toys, which cannot protect but surely have the ability to destroy. The camera is floating along with the objects and protagonists, it moves in and out, often films the faces though their visors, then suddenly moves inside the helmet. Space is vast and unintelligible, yet for those lost in it it is a narrow, claustrophobic room as they are caught in the prison of human ambition. When – in accordance with physics – a space station explodes without a sound, this is a powerful reminder of our place in the universe.

The elementary fear and despair is always present: in the darkness of space, the cold emptiness of the technological contraptions, the clean, anti-septic images, whose polished surface reveals an unfeeling, indifferent universe – the real one as the man-made one – in which being human is impossibly hard. That it affirms the validity of trying despite the odds, is one of the film’s strongest points, as is the repeated, yet never obvious reminder of what it is we have to fight for: earth’s beauty is shown as vulnerable, fragile, fleeting, yet overwhelming. While the musical score is at times superfluous, the story-lines occasionally to well-composed, the ending a little farfetched, Gravity is a powerful reminder of the possibilities and limits of human aspiration, critical of human hubris and affirmation of humanity’s strength. A hypnotic, mesmerizing and ultimately hopeful film that will prove hard to forget.

 

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