Beyond the breathtaking images and special effects, Gravity is a film about adversity and our fear of dying alone, set as a stripped down survival tale. Based on our fascination with stars, which began with Melies Trip to the Moon, what better setting for these weighty subjects than outer space, where there is no one to save you? The film is a metaphor for the adversities we all have in our lives and what makes us go on and keep trying when there seems no reason to do so. A part of life is always operating to keep us from going on, but here Ryan eventually chooses life, despite the inertia of where she is drifting.
Cuaron elegantly proposes these themes in a visual rather than rhetorical fashion, in some of the most beautiful and elegant filmmaking I’ve seen in a long time on the big screen. These fairly “grave” (derived from the root word in the film’s title: serious, the physical burial place, and weighty as opposed to weightless) themes are not typical Hollywood fare and it is to Curaron’s great credit that his focus is on storytelling and letting the technology serve his story, rather than the other way around as is so often the case in Hollywood.
The use of very long, fluid takes of 10-12 minutes (such as the filmmaker and his frequent cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki used in Children of Men) convey the experience of being without gravity in outer space, coupled with the construction of a light box for the actors who float on rigging. The fluidity of their movements matches the fluidity of the cinematography and the fluidity of the music, since in outer space everything is in constant motion and there is no real up or down. Just like a dance performance, where everything looks easy and effortless, there is no hint of the extensive training and work both Bullock and Clooney did to make their movements look so natural and painless.
For all the discussion about this film’s impressive technology, scale and vistas, this is more a film about interior feelings than exterior panoramas, and much is conveyed in the facial expressions and voice of Ryan. Some of the shots of Ryan’s face through her helmet visor evoke those in that ultimate silent film of emotional close ups, The Passion of Joan of Arc, by Carl Dreyer or for that matter, in The Tramp, by Charlie Chaplin. We seem to constantly shift point of view, from the third person watching Ryan and Kowalski struggling with their environment to slowly shift without realizing it to the first person as if we are inside Ryan’s helmet seeing outer space through her visor, looking out as she is, for something to relate to in this foreign environment. We see, feel and breathe through Ryan, for she is us.
Bullock’s performance packs the emotional wallop here, as she pulls us in physically while swimming through zero gravity and the primordial ooze of her emotional states, suggesting emotional states through gestures, whether it be the womblike image of her curled up in fetal regression or the way she twists and turns down the umbilical corridors of the spaceship to finally give birth on Earth as she crawls from the water like our ancestors did, gasping for air like a newborn, finally breathing on her own. Those first steps Ryan takes on earth give new meaning to the word “gravity”, this force on earth we take for granted until we no longer have it. Just as we take life for granted and only see it as precious when we are confronted with death.
Adversity gives us the opportunity either for rebirth or to die in some way by giving up. This film gives us the opportunity to stop for 91 minutes (and long after the movie is over) to think about those fears we keep ourselves so busy trying to forget.