Gravity: Traversing the Glorious Terror of the Cosmos

Review of Gravity, Directed by Alfonso Cuarón


Director Alfonso Cuarón’s IMDB biography says that he has always wanted to be two things: a director and an astronaut. If so, it makes a lot of sense why he made Gravity, the survival story of astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and medial engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) after their mission to upgrade a satellite telescope goes horribly awry.

The story that follows is simple: Astronauts try to get back to earth after their shuttle is disabled by satellite debris. That’s it. But Cuarón makes it so much more.

From an audio standpoint, Gravity’s soundtrack and sound effects are built on low notes and thuds as the film walks the fine line between technically correct (there’s no sound in space) and relying on powerful theatrical effects that hit viewers in the gut with the cold, impersonal fist of the cosmos. There’s a certain horror, after all, to watching a space station silently explode behind Bullock’s Ryan Stone in a hail of satellite shrapnel. Multiple times, as Ryan screams in frustration inside a space station or pod, the camera cuts abruptly outside to the deafness of space, accentuating the futility and loneliness of her striving.

Visually, Gravity captures the terrifying wonder of space as experienced in orbit above the earth, filling its subjects with the brilliant, untainted colors of light in space. Beauty floods the scene all around Matt and Ryan, catching us up in the glorious rapture of creation that screams life. Matt, a seasoned astronaut ever the bastion of stabilizing calm, humor, and hope, remarks on the beauty of the sunrise as it explodes across the curve of the earth. And in the hands of Cuarón, even a disintegrating space station becomes a glorious sight as it burns out in bright red streaks above the shimmery green northern lights—all as Ryan starts to plunge to what very well may be her death.

Therein lies a powerful tension, because against the backdrop of such majesty, played out before us is a struggle to survive in an atmosphere that is, well, nonexistent. In an inversion of the common man versus nature plot, where humans must struggle against external elements or creatures intruding into their existence, Gravity pits a pair of astronauts against the nothingness, where something as simple as one’s own inertia becomes one of the greatest threats to survival. This gives Gravity an engrossing vigor, because perhaps the only thing more frightening than something intruding into our being is facing the abyss. That is what space is, after all—a vast expanse of nothingness stretching forever into more nothingness. Existentialists speak of the experience of facing an abyss in relation to meaning and purpose in life, yet here Bullock encounters its physical incarnation as she dangles from an orbiting piece of metal and oxygen, often just a hand’s grip away from spinning eternally, hopelessly, into the black.

In this sense, I found in Gravity a metaphor for human experience. When we honestly evaluate our lives we soon find ourselves floating through a world that provides no immediate sense of meaning and purpose. Instead of just minutes of air to breathe, we have years, but our days are numbered nonetheless. Ryan aims to get to a space station, a small refuge where she can find more air to preserve her life in the here and now. But more important, she seeks the space station because it provides the hope of salvation – an escape pod that can transport her from her current world, which is hostile to her existence, to one created for life, her true home.

Gravity pulls you in most at the points where it molds a three dimensional protagonist. The basic plot may be man vs. nature, but the struggle births an existential crisis for a heartbroken woman fighting nearly impossible odds. You lost your four-year-old daughter, Matt tells her at one point (and I paraphrase); Life doesn’t get much harder than that.  It would be so easy to give up right now. If you’re going to get home, you have to find a reason to go back there – you have to find a way to keep living beyond tragedy. At the very least, he says, you’ll have a “hell of a story to tell.”

The possibility of such a story gives Ryan fresh resolve—even a faith, of sorts, as she finds herself praying for the first time in her life. It makes sense that the two would be connected, because a story requires an author. And if this Author is also the Creator of the heavens and the Earth, then a film like Gravity offers us much hope indeed.

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