“Open Water” (2003)
"Gravity" is not just a survival tale—it is also, especially in its first half, pretty much a horror movie, all the more frightening for the realism of the peril that threatens from all sides, but also of the despair that comes from within. And while it can’t hold a candle to the sheer, stark beauty of "Gravity" or the tumbling weightless grace of Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera, the ultra-low-budget high-concept “Open Water” may be the closest we can get to the sheer existential panic of being a human abandoned by humanity, adrift and alone with only a thin suit protecting us from the inescapable hostility of an enormous, impersonally lethal environment. It’s the simple story of a couple on holiday in the Caribbean, who resurface after a scuba dive in deep waters, to discover that the tour boat that brought them has left without them. Stranded in the middle of a featureless ocean, out of sight of any coast and in shark-infested waters, exhaustion soon sets it as they battle with one another and with jellyfish stings, dehydration and exposure, and their hope of rescue gradually wanes. The film’s threadbare budget, sketchy characterization and at times unconvincing script aside, for anyone who’s ever scared themselves while swimming in the sea with the thought, “What if I turned around now and couldn’t see the beach?” the clutch of fear at the central duo’s fate progressively becomes a death grip in the imagination. We could wish that the story and performances were as polished and precise as in Cuarón’s film, and that the filmmaking was a little more thrilling and inventive, but you can’t deny the effectiveness of the premise, nor the absolute absence of compromise in how it plays out.
"Cast Away" (2000)
In terms of a single actor being marooned for most of the movie, it doesn't get much better than the gold standard: Robert Zemeckis' "Cast Away," a big-budget blockbuster that is also weird and experimental and sort of oddly alienating. The tale of a FedEx executive (played, immaculately, by Tom Hanks) marooned on an unpopulated island after a horrific plane crash, it's a careful character study as well as a nuanced tale of survival —both elements that are key to the success of "Gravity." The fact that "Cast Away" takes place over a much greater length of time allowed Zemeckis and the other filmmakers some luxuries that "Gravity" can't quite afford given its ticking clock structure, but in Sandra Bullock's performance there's that same sense of longing, a survival instinct that's beautifully coupled with moments of utter hopelessness. It's hard not to wonder if Bullock watched Hanks' performance as here she does achieve a similar, subtle mix of emotions even though the physicality of her performance is different by nature. The filmmaking in both films is also incredibly technical but yet allows for, in fact demands, a range of expressiveness from the actor. And lastly, though literally in a different world, the opening plane crash in "Cast Away" is very similar to what unfolds in "Gravity," not the least because Zemeckis, like Cuarón, is so focused on the people involved in the calamity and not just things blowing up or smashing into one another. Both films have a visceral quality that is hard to shake, long after they end, and as both a technical achievement and a showcase for totally committed central performances, they're hard to beat.
"Solaris" (1972 and 2002)
What "Gravity" shares with "Solaris" (both versions) extends far beyond its spacey sci-fi conventions. No, the connection is deeper and extends to the thematic core of "Gravity" -- the idea that to progress, both as an individual human and as a species, you have to let go. "Solaris" has to do with a planet that seemingly allows the loved ones you've lost on earth to rematerialize in the flesh, which is somewhat unsettling, even as it acts as a kind of wish fulfillment ideal. The films have a mournful, melancholic tone that is far different to the space operas that were released around the same time (the original came out a half-decade before the first "Star Wars," while the remake played in theaters during the height of prequel-mania). Furthermore, in both the "Solaris" films and in "Gravity," the act of letting go isn't just essential on a psychological level, it's vital for survival. In order to get through the ordeal ("Solaris" has more supernatural trappings), you literally have to jettison things from your past. (Of course, George Clooney starred in the Steven Soderbergh remake of "Solaris" just as he does in "Gravity," and there is an echo of that in Cuaron's film). In fact, Andrei Tarkovsky described his original "Solaris" as "a drama of grief and partial recovery;" and the same could easily be said about "Gravity," in which Bullock is fighting against the blackness of space and the blackness inside of her as she's still reeling from her own personal demons. While "Solaris" may lack the visceral kickiness and approachability of "Gravity" it more than compensates with its knockout emotional punch; just because you're far from earth doesn't mean you can't be crippled by your own terrestrial humanity.
There are some notable and obvious omissions from this list—Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is of course referenced directly in the film, but it’s such a peerless classic that if you haven’t already seen it, or don’t already know just how highly regarded it is round these parts well, there’s just no hope for you and we give up. Also, we were happy to note a nod to both Ron Howard’s finest hour “Apollo 13” (which we wrote about very recently here) and Philip Kaufman’s engrossing “The Right Stuff” in the casting of Ed Harris as the voice of mission control. More tenuously, perhaps, the claustrophobia of being trapped in a tiny space far away from any help has been evoked in other films from “Buried” all the way back to Hitchock’s “Lifeboat” (you can check out our feature on single-setting films if those comparisons appeal to you), while if you’re looking for an even more esoteric and fim-snobby connection, just check out the use of camera movement and reflection in Max Ophuls’ “The Earrings of Madame De….” And we don't think we're giving too much away when we say that two upcoming films are in many ways waterlogged counterparts to "Gravity"—Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips" (review here) which opens next week and JC Chandor's "All is Lost" (review here) which opens the week after. These are just a few of the titles that occurred to us thinking back—let us know what others “Gravity” stirs up for you and we’ll be sure to keep them in mind the next time we see it. Because there will be a next time—the kids may go shoeless to school, but this month’s paycheck is going on 3D IMAX surcharges. — Jessica Kiang and Drew Taylor