Gravity Soars

Gravity Soars February 3, 2014

Review of Gravity, Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

What makes any work of art good? Years ago I had the opportunity to tour Europe. After weeks of walking through the Louvre, the British Museum, the Vatican, the Pergamon, the Acropolis, Topkapi Palace, the Gallery of the Academy of Florence, and more, I noticed something about virtually all art before the 19th century. Whether it was a painting, a sculpture, a frieze, or a building, it was about something: religion, war, victory, death, the afterlife, the gods, the state, heroes, or the ancestors.  Art existed, and still exists, to tell stories about the big things in life. It exists to edify, educate, exalt, and inspire. It is, or should be, a picture or a reflection of something that cannot be expressed or captured in any other way–specifically, something good, something true, something noble.

Movies are no different. The best movies tell stories about the big things in life, and tell them in a way that only a movie can. Few movies combine technical mastery of the instruments of filmmaking–the sound, the camera, the actors, the lights, and now the computers–in the service of a story that says something inspiring and noble and true.  The stories themselves are never new. There are, famously, only 7 different plots in all fiction; or, as we know from Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. The challenge is to tell an old story in a new way, the breathe new life into ancient truths with the power of a particular story, of particular people, using the strengths of a particular medium.

With that as our yardstick, let me offer this judgment: Gravity is one of the greatest movies ever made.

By now you have probably heard about the jaw-dropping visual splendor of Alfonso Cuaron’s space survival thriller. It isn’t just the intense realism of the orbital setting, the way the camera floats and rotates freely, the believable reconstruction of a shuttle and a space station and their destruction by a cloud of supersonic deadly debris. Cuaron also takes time to dwell on the awesome majesty of the world: a sunrise, the earth at night, a swimming frog. Creation is majestic and glorious and terrible and fierce.

(The sound might be even more impressive.  Most of the movie takes place in space, and we only hear dulled vibrations through astronauts’ spacesuits. The obliteration of a space station by orbiting shrapnel is made more terrifying because it is nearly, but not quite, silent.  Add in the music: discordant, nauseating, grunting–until the astonishing finale.)

[spoilers follow]

It is the story that truly elevates Gravity. Without the story, and Sandra Bullock’s acting, the film would be a fun spectacle on par with Jurassic Park, nothing more. Gravity is more.

Gravity is a story of loss, grief, and despair, followed by faith, hope, and rebirth. It is a simple Man versus Nature story.  But Cuaron uses that conventional plot as a structure on which to overlay a story about a mother grieving her lost child–and then, on top of that, adds some evocative imagery that elevates the story even further.

On one level, then, Gravity is a thriller about a stranded astronaut overcoming a damaged spacecraft and the vacuum of space to get to earth safely. This Gravity is tense and exciting. It is the entertaining blockbuster that earned almost $700 million at the global box office and earned a spot on IMDB’s greatest films of all time.

On another level, Gravity is about the human tendency to withdraw in the face of loss, to isolate ourselves when we’re hurt.  Bullock’s character withdraws into the blackness of space in her fear and grief after losing her child. In a moment of despair, at the film’s great crisis, she shuts off her oxygen and waits for death. She comforts herself that at least she’ll see her daughter again. She only mourns that no one ever taught her to pray, or she would spend her last moments in prayer. This Gravity is mournful and melancholy. This is the film that won ecstatic praise from critics for its emotional depth and maturity, and that won Best Picture from the Producer’s Guild.

But this is where Cuaron apparently went insane with creative madness, because a third Gravity emerges in the final, awe-inspiring 20 minutes of film, and that puts it on my list of greatest artistic achievements in the history of human civilization.

Bullock’s character has an hallucination of her partner, played by George Clooney, who had earlier sacrificed himself to save her. He gives her a pep talk. She wakes up, restarts the oxygen and starts to work out her way home. But she keeps talking to him, her mediating savior, as golden light from the sun illuminates her face. “Tell my daughter that I won’t see her today after all,” she prays.

Following her prayer and newfound faith in life, she rides fire from heaven to home, streaking downward through the sky in the flaming shrapnel of a disintegrating space station. She plunges into the ocean and fights her way upward through the water and emerges, reborn, on shore, planting a foot on earth. The music makes these scenes hopeful, triumphant, and redemptive.

Words are an injustice to this stupendous sequence of images and sound.  The imagery is audacious. It is evocative, even archetypal: of the dark night of the soul in the black depth of space; of the despair and resignation that prepares us to receive the help of a mediating savior; of divine fire that consumes, protects, and gives new life; of birth and rebirth; of courage and faith. Bullock’s character has to undertake desperate acts of courage but, in the end, can only trust in higher forces for deliverance.

This story has been told before, and it will be told again. Gravity is the perfect example of telling an old story, old truths, in an astonishingly new way, using the particular story and unique strengths of a new medium. I can’t think of higher praise for a movie. They have re-released this movie in theaters following its nomination for 10 Academy Awards. Please, I beg you, see this movie.

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