(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
For someone like Alfonso Cuarón who loves to emphasize his universe with long takes and tracking shots, space must be heaven in more ways than one. There is a sequence between seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) – who is on her first mission – when they discuss the good things about space. They agree they like the silence. The part where you can just be yourself, tune everything and everyone else out and reach a zen state of mind. It reads like a wish list for Cuarón himself and his way of film making and space – the endlessness gives him all the freedom to indulge in. He gleefully does and the result, much like the view that Kowalski repeatedly claims, is breathtaking. It opens with a 13 minute unbroken sequence and Cuarón uses 3D and his long shot genius in such non-gimmicky ways that it is as if the camera (or is it us?) too is floating in space.
This is certainly not indulgence in the negative way. Cuarón improvises and doesn’t just wish to take advantage of the stretching of space but also focuses repeatedly on the loneliness and the claustrophobic nature of it. This is space, there is little you can do with depth of field but Cuarón uses selective focus in fantastic ways. A long sequence seen from a flustered Stone’s point of view then loops back to focus on her, goes through her helmet and into her very uncomfortable situation. A similar effect is achieved by closeups that show clear reflections on the helmet visor. This is 3D and camerawork used in the most scintillating way possible since Scorsese’s Hugo.
The music loving Kowalski, his countless anecdotes and incessant chatter is the only thing that lightens the mood in a film that otherwise has an elegiac feel throughout. There are several themes that Alfonso Cuarón attempts here. One of them that is always in the background, possibly intentionally so, is the concept of home. What is home? Where is it? How dear is it? When Kowalski tries to keep Stone in conversation as her oxygen level decreases, he doesn’t ask where she is from but asks, “Where is home?“. This is a question the film asks of everyone. Every time the camera looms over characters space walking or drifting aimlessly in space, we see earth in the background with land masses and continents that seem recognizable at first (however improbable, this is an obvious exercise I am sure everyone will fall for). But the camera moves along and we are not sure anymore. The whole point here is not just to stay alive but to get to home wherever it is.
Gravity may be a sci-fi thriller but it thematically has little to do with science. The film doesn’t bother itself with plausibility because its ambitions are more visceral. There is the invisible running motif of hope in the most hopeless and distressing of states. There is even a possible advent of deus ex machina hinting at a theme of faith. The other theme that repeatedly rears its head in more obvious ways is the concept of birth. It’s almost a pet theme of Cuarón’s as it follows from his earlier film Children of Men. A compare and contrast is in order after repeated viewings of both the films but for now, that sequence of Dr. Ryan Stone, as she finally makes it to the space station, is enough. She removes her space suit and curls herself into a fetal position as if signifying her rebirth after the catastrophic ordeal. This becomes even more apparent in the very last shot as the film goes for a rousing finish that is uncharacteristic of Cuarón. It’s not just rebirth but more of a commentary on evolution (It’s him asking, “And you thought this had nothing to do with science?”).
The fetal position also plays out as a homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey like many other things in the film. Everything that follows operates in the realm of impending doom much like large parts of Kubrick’s masterpiece. There might well be an invisible HAL following Stone, as once she is in the station everything goes wrong one after the other. The writing has a neat way of portending events like how we see the little balls of sparks floating inside the space station before the fire disaster. The tinge of humour and melancholia in Dr. Stone’s one way communication with the Chinese base is funny and soul crushing at the same time and Sandra Bullock is terrific here. This is her film as much as it is Alfonso Cuarón’s and she’s brilliant enough to make you stand and applaud in zero gravity. Her desolation reminds one a lot of Sam Bell’s situation in Duncan Jones’ Moon, another film that owed a great deal to 2001.
Gravity is a sweet and scary marriage of great special effects with genius filmmaking. It is nothing but pure cinema. As Dr. Stone evolves, we evolve both as movie audience and as people with respect to our place in this universe. It might reveal a flaw or several with multiple viewings (which it deserves) but it will stay one thing throughout – fascinating.