Since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Gravity has generated a tremendous amount of reverential hype, but with its general release the inevitable critical backlash is beginning to roll—or rather troll—its way across the web. Where once critics compared Cuarón’s film favorably with the work it most resembles, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is now being criticized for falling short of that earlier film’s ambition. While Gravity’s special effects are sufficiently stunning to distract, potentially, from the film’s intellectual and emotional impact, it is a much smarter film than it is generally given credit for being. Far from being mere imitation or homage, Gravity offers an ingenious and moving revision and critique of its predecessor, one that begins in the stars but returns us to our own earthly soil. Cuarón’s achievement is to make our own planet and the fragile lives it sustains seem as miraculous as the cosmos that surrounds it.
Both films concern space travel, yet while 2001 reflects the sense of wonder inspired by the golden era of space travel, Gravity shows a space program in which the optimism of its early years has been gutted, along with its budget. Much of the film takes place in abandoned space stations, interiors clogged with the trash and cast-off tchotchkes of departed astronauts. The opening scene shows a technical crew repairing the Hubble telescope above a jaw-dropping view of the Earth, but they seem almost bored, or, like Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), nauseous, as she attempts to fight off the effects of zero-g by concentrating on her work, evidently as dull to her as the scenery might be grand to a novice.
But dullness and nausea quickly give way to terror as the hurtling debris from an exploded Russian satellite strikes the repair crew, and it is telling that the film’s greatest threat comes from, essentially, garbage. Stone is sent spinning out of control into space, in a scene clearly derived from that harrowing moment in 2001 when Frank Poole hurtles into the darkness when his oxygen hose is severed. Yet it is at this early point that Cuarón begins to reverse the direction of Kubrick’s odyssey: whereas the one surviving astronaut of 2001’s Jupiter crew will set out on a journey “Beyond the Infinite,” Cuarón will take us into the finite, as Ryan Stone confronts her own mortality.
Throughout Gravity we are reminded of how fragile human beings are, how vulnerable our bodies, as we witness Stone being thrown and pummeled through a series of deadly and dazzling physics lessons. As in Children of Men, Cuarón’s elaborately choreographed camera work is used to place us in almost unbearably intimate proximity to the fear and suffering of his characters. We hear and see Stone’s breathing until it becomes almost an extension of our own. The awkward bulkiness of her suit only serves to emphasize the frailty of a body it cannot hope to protect.
While some of these elements are also present in Kubrick’s 2001, human frailty and the technologies which sustain it are emphasized only to underscore the film’s final movement towards transcendence. Though there are a wide range of possible interpretations of 2001’s final image of a gigantic fetus floating in space, it is clearly meant to represent some kind of rebirth, one in which David Bowman, and by extension the human race, has moved on to its next, possibly final, evolutionary stage, a journey that began long ago, when a giant black monolith taught early hominids how to use tools. Ryan Stone, on the other hand, will journey in the opposite direction, towards a humanness that is less cosmic, more earthly.
Cuarón explicitly references Kubrick’s final image when Stone finally makes it to the shelter of the International Space Station. There, she frees herself from her burdensome suit and floats, fetus-like, in the oxygenated atmosphere. The image is mesmerizing, and Kubrick-like in its use of one-point perspective; yet Cuarón’s fetus image is radically different in its thematic implications. Whereas Dave Bowman’s transformation signals another, clearly post-human, phase of evolution, Cuarón emphasizes Stone’s humanity, her corporeal, embodied self. Cuarón replaces Kubrick’s image of transcendence with one of vulnerability.
Given the fact that most of Gravity is spent free of the earth’s pull, the title might seem ironic, at least until we learn more about Stone’s personal history. The absorption in work that marked her first appearance in the film is in large part an escape from the painful memory of the death of her young daughter, who fell while playing on the schoolyard. The randomness of this tragic event serves to underscore the film’s preoccupation with human frailty, as both mother and daughter find themselves pulled by natural forces beyond their control. Rather than transcend these merely physical forces, however, Cuarón asks us to accept, and even embrace, them.
In what is, to me, the film’s most powerful scene, Stone, alone in an abandoned space station and desperate for the sound of another voice, searches the airwaves for some signal from Earth. At last, out of the static, there emerges a foreign male voice, apparently drunk, and laughing. Stone seems a little disappointed, until she hears a dog in the background. Attempting to transcend the language barrier, she makes dog sounds, at first in the hopes of engaging her human counterpart, but eventually engaging the nonhuman. We are pulled into an intimate close-up as Stone begins to howl, mournfully, along with the dog, shedding tears that float into the oxygenated air, forming globules like tiny planets. She has found a place in herself prior to speech, allowing her to give vent to sorrows deeper than human language. Like the dog, she is an embodied, vulnerable creature, and in evolutionary terms they share a common ancestry, and a common planet.
The film’s final scene will make this evolutionary narrative even more explicit, but I don’t want to give anything away, since this is a thriller after all, isn’t it? While the film’s action sequences have been justly praised as some of the most gripping and technically accomplished ever filmed, I would argue that they are there primarily to serve the central human narrative. This narrative is told through minimal dialogue and maximal images, yet it is as clear and direct as fairy tale or myth. If we compare Cuarón’s space sequences with Kubrick’s, a clear difference emerges: though the space-ships of 2001 might dance to the rhythms of a Strauss waltz, they are cold and inhuman, whereas in Gravity the human form is at the center of nearly every shot. One might compare the presence of CGI technology in Gravity to that of the HAL computer in 2001: each might guide our journey, but after a certain point we need to cut them loose to discover how our story will turn out.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.