At this point, to review Alfonso Cuaròn’s masterpiece, Gravity, would be redundant. Pretty much everything there is to be said about it – awe-inspiring, hopeful, terrifying, beautiful, and so much more – has been said by reviewers far more successful and talented than myself. Suffice it to say that I’ve never seen its like before, and will be digging my fingernails from my thighs for weeks to come. If you don’t go and see it in the cinema, you will be doing yourself a disservice.
Much has also been said about its indebtedness to prior movies set in space, almost all of which are science fiction. As a result of its influences and setting, the film itself has been categorised by a number of critics as such. It’s even been dubbed a “space opera”, which sounds somewhat odd to anyone who’s ever actually read science fiction. It’s an understandable mistake to make, but a mistake nonetheless. Gravity is a disaster movie, a drama set in space. It is not science fiction.
Sci fi takes improbabilities and impossibilities, asks us to suspend our disbelief, then uses those scenarios as a mirror for ourselves and our society. Gravity, on the other hand, presents a clear view of human response to adversity in a physically distant but completely plausible scenario. There is no suspension of disbelief required, partly as a result of Cuaròn and his team’s virtuoso filmmaking, but also because of the sheer humanity and connection Bullock’s performance establishes between the audience and her character. Here, there are no grandiose themes except as background, the film does not concern itself with issues or ask the Big Questions in the way science fiction so often does. The question which animates and drives tension throughout the film is “can she make it back home?”
The stark message which precedes Gravity’s balletic opening 12-minute shot is that “Life in space is impossible.” And it conveys the cosmic awe and almost surreal beauty of our unforgiving, Newtonian universe better than any film to date. There is the constant sense of wonder there too, and terror, not only at the life-threatening situations its heroes find themselves in but also at the obviousness of their insignificance – and the insignificance of our pale blue dot with its fragile atmosphere hanging suspended in the night. Even faced with oblivion and drifting into the void, George Clooney’s jetpacking Major Kowalski wonders at the beauty of the sun on the Ganges.
Its sense of awe and wonder at the unforgiving beauty of space is as universal as the journey of suffering, struggle and redemption at the centre of the plot. It’s a feeling captured best in another recent film, The Europa Report, which tells the story of a manned, privately-funded mission to the eponymous moon of Jupiter. As you’d expect, disaster strikes; but the most surprising thing about the film is that, like Gravity, in the end it is profoundly uplifting. Despite all the terror, death, and destruction depicted, the furthering of our innate curiosity and wonder at the universe is something to be celebrated. It’s what makes it all worth it.
This celebration of the wonder of space exploration, whilst acknowledging the existential terror of being separated from the only home we’ve ever known, cast adrift into the black airlessness surrounding it, is something Gravity shares with much science fiction across many media. It is never a question of whether they – or we – should be up there, but of how we can overcome the adversity inherent in that exploration. Like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, like Kubrick’s 2001, like Tarkovski’s Solaris, it’s the journey, what we see and learn along the way, that counts.
So Gravity is not science fiction. But it stands upon the shoulders of giants like Ridley Scott’s Alien and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Cuaròn even acknowledges his debt to Scott in the credits). The tension it elicits between the incredible grace, the beauty of earth hanging in George Clooney’s visor and the violence of debris ripping apart our tenuous footholds beyond the earth’s atmosphere sums up our relationship to the manned investigation of the cosmos. It might be dangerous, it might even kill us, but the view is incredible.