Thursday, October 24, 2013

'Gravity' (2013) directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Fuck outer space.  Seriously.  Up until I sat down to this film I was envious as hell of astronauts; brave men and women who get to spend their days bobbing around, conducting cutting edge research while enjoying the view of a lifetime.  But after about half an hour of Gravity?  Space travel? Yeah, cheers but no thank you.  Cuarón has taught me an important lesson: outer space is a lonely void where horrible death can come out of the blue at any moment, where every single second of survival is to be fought for and they were so right when they said that no-one can hear you scream.

This terrifying environment is the backdrop for an impossibly tense survival film. Astronauts marooned in space with no hope of rescue,  oxygen depleting, desperately trying to get back to earth. There are only two real characters in the film: Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). From the first to the last shot we spend the entire film with Bullock's Ryan Stone, the audience experiencing her every moment of panic, disorientation and terror.

Bullock knocks it out of the park, creating a complex, detailed character that believably runs through the entire emotional gamut.  It's difficult to think of many contemporary women actors that could pull off the competent 'everywoman' quality that Bullock brings to the character of Ryan Stone, a woman whose intelligence and skill we respect while at the same time utterly empathising with her when she doesn't know what to do.  If she doesn't get a barrow-load of awards for this it'll be a sin.

Performances and plot aside, just in terms of pure cinematic 'wow', Gravity is an experience unlike anything else I've seen.  Cuarón is justifiably famous for his long takes, but new technology and this subject matter grant him infinite room and a virtual camera that can go wherever he likes.  The first shot of the film lasts 17 minutes, the camera moving from wide shots to close-ups of the actors, tumbling freely around an environment where there is no 'up', giving us in the audience a faint, yet exhilarating, simulation of weightlessness.  In a bravura moment, the camera pans from outer space, through the glass of an astronaut's helmet and seamlessly slides into a first person view, then back out into space (with attendant changes in ambient sound).  The effect of this impressive technology is intensified by the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (Terrence Malick's go-to D.O.P) who creates images of such terrible beauty that they arguably surmount the abstract awe of Kubrick's 2001.  And that is high praise indeed.

This is also one of the vanishingly small group of films you really should go and see in 3D. The technology is used to create depth in the frame, crucial in a film where distance and the way objects move in 3D is so important.  In the first person 'in-helmet' shots the effect is so gripping that, slightly embarrassing for me, I was so caught up in the scene that I automatically put my hand into the air to grab at a handle floating past.  

What I'm saying is that you should go and see Gravity.  This film is a goddamn masterpiece of cinema: a perfect marriage of artistry, technology, philosophy and nail-biting action.  Not only go and see it, but see it in 3D on as big a screen as you can possibly find.  The idea of watching this on a television at home makes me cringe, so go and see it. Alfonso Cuarón occupies a table among the very, very top-flight of modern directors now, and hopefully the success of this film will let him continue to create these wonderful, wonderful films.  To sum up if you haven't got this through your thick head yet:  GRAVITY:  IT'S  FUCKING A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.

Now I want to talk about the film as a whole, so if you haven't seen it yet (why haven't you seen it yet?!) don't read below the next picture.

Gravity is on general release from November 7

Right, first things first: Gravity isn't about space.  Sure it's set in space and has all the trappings of a space action film, but it's really supremely unconcerned about the scientific potential or physics of space travel.  Instead, this is a deeply layered film about spiritual awakening, how life is a constant, vicious battle against a death-trap universe.  It ends up as a guide to dealing with all the horrible shit that life throws at you.

We learn that Ryan Stone is a deeply unhappy woman fairly early on in the film.  Her young daughter died in a freak accident: tripping in the schoolyard and hitting her head awkwardly. She's numb, tortured and deeply depressed - buffeted by chance, enduring whatever slings and arrows are thrown at her. Underlining the atmosphere of depression is Stone constantly seeing safe environments violently torn to shreds in front of her and her physical connections between people severed.  Outer space thus becomes an externalisation of her numbness, a vast blank suffocating nothing: the ultimate silence. The image of a person, floating helplessly into infinity, an insignificant white dot being swallowed by inky blackness is chilling in its simplicity and horrifying in its implications.  

So how can does she get over this?  It's Clooney's Kowalski that points her in the right direction, both in a literal and spiritual sense.  Whereas Stone feels like an interloper in space, Kowalski is totally at home, cool, calm and collected even in the face of pants-shitting disaster. This is his last scheduled mission and though he's jokey and genial you realise that there's not much down there for him on Earth.  When he sacrifices his life to save Stone we begin to put the pieces together of what the film is telling us.  Dully trudging through life is a living death, what matters is self-actualisation: making your own choices and making them count.  In the act of untethering himself he lays it all out for Stone - let go - let go of him, let go of the grief, let go of the self-loathing, let go of your guilt about your daughter.  His last words as he floats serenely away are “You should see the sun shining on the Ganges. It's amazing...". The Ganges is of course the most important river in Hinduism, a symbol of death and rebirth.  Orbiting the earth, Kowalski thus accepts his participation and place in Samsāra - the great wheel of life.

That said, it's important not to mistake Gravity's spirituality as promoting of a particular religion.  Though the film is stuffed full of religious symbols; Buddha; Jesus; and an orthodox icon of St. Christopher, equal credence is given to each, organised religion merely a symptom of spiritual ideology rather than and endpoint. As a neat aside, though the environments are filled with clutter floating in microgravity all the religious totems are firmly secured to surfaces, impressing their permanence upon us. Perhaps the most omnipresent religious element is Stone's constant commentary to "Houston in the blind", Kowalski assures her that it's important she keep talking on the radio because even if they're not there, someone might be listening. That she keeps this up through the entire film makes her later remark that no-one ever taught her how to pray slightly ironic. 

This radio chatter also marks the moment she starts developing into someone that can survive this shitty situation.  Earlier in the film she explains that she spends a lot of time driving back home with the radio on, listening to any music and avoiding hearing people talking. Compare this to later in the film, where she's desperately sending out her own voice over the airwaves and collapsing with uncontrollable emotion when she finally hears someone, anyone talk. When she makes contact with an Inuit nomad, she hears dogs barking in the background and is dragged back from the state of living death she's been in for the entire film, embracing an all-life - ecstatically barking along with the dogs.

So, Stone has realised the importance of life, and finally on some level understood the connection between all living things.  Unfortunately for her she's still freezing to death in a space capsule with no fuel.  It's at this point that Kowalski returns, but of course, it isn't Kowalski.  This friendly spirit is a manifestation of Stone's will to survive and the fact that she can create this illusion wholecloth indicates that she's matched his state of enlightenment. Like a bodhisattva the path she must now take is clear as day, she solves her problems and with precise, confident movements makes her way to the final Shenzhou escape pod.  From this point rather than 'surviving' she's 'living'.

Within Shenzhou (Chinese for "Divine Vessel of God") she plunges into the atmosphere, purifying flames licking around her.  She sits secure in the knowledge that she's done all she can possibly to do to survive and, bathed in bright light, trusts herself to fate.  As triumphal music plays she soars through the sky: a shooting star burning a trail through the heavens - humanity transformed into divinity.

As she lands she undergoes a universal rebirth.  The film up this point as been jam-packed full of birth imagery, umbilical cords everywhere, foetal position posing and constant bursting in and out of tight passages.  As water rushes into her capsule she undergoes a final, ultimate 'all-birth'.  With stunning economy, Cuarón places a single human existence within the grand tapestry of evolution.  As she thrashes out of her heavy space-suit a fish swims past, then a frog.  Kicking up towards the surface she swims to a muddy shore, crawling out of a primordial sea like the first creature venturing onto land, and finally defying gravity by standing on her own two feet. Stone's spiritual transformation comes not from a particular religious awakening, not even from a uniquely human happiness - but from grasping a simple pleasure in 'being'.  

Life is fragile, unlikely and dangerous - the simple fact of your existence in the first place hinges on one sperm cell amongst hundreds of millions of competitors winning a race.  The deck is stacked against you from minute one.  The world will throw a million catastrophes at you at once, death is hiding behind every corner and yeah, we actually are floating in an endless inky black void - but that don't mean you gotta be glum, son.  Change what you can and accept what you can't.  Don't be afraid to live and don't be afraid to die.

Gravity is a masterpiece.  It's certainly one of the finest experiences I've had in a cinema to date.  I'm sure as sure can be that there's much more to meaning to mine from this film and boy you'd better believe I'm going to see it on IMAX as soon and as often as I reasonably can!

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