What is it about Sandra Bullock and one-word titles that place her at the mercy of out of control modes of transport? In GRAVITY the vehicle is a space “bus” of sorts, thousands of light years away from the earthbound thrills of the movie that put her on the map–SPEED. Written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) GRAVITY comes trailing all of the archetypal detritus of human experience, a stunning meditative thriller, harrowing and poetic, and in the end– a profoundly moving fable about life, death, and rebirth.
The film begins high above earth’s atmosphere in the quiet and cold of a brilliant universe. Several astronauts are adrift there on a mission in space. Only Sandra Bullock (Ryan Stone) and George Clooney (Matt Kowalski) are singled out for our attention in this sea of silent beauty and possibility. We know little about either of these space travelers– Matt is a seasoned astronaut and a charming, devil may care “I know I’m staring death in the face so let’s have another drink” kind of guy. She’s a scientist, but the less experienced traveler and soberer of the two, and her life has been marked by a significant tragedy; it has left her unmoored in fundamental ways.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, an accident sends debris from a damaged space station hurtling their way and the terrifying result is that the two become untethered from their craft and left tumbling through the universe, oxygen running out. Matt is determined to reel Ryan in. I could barely breathe, my heart pounding. What unfolds is an attempted rescue, and…and… that’s all I want to say.
The film, only 90 minutes, made me feel like I’d been gone a million years. The pacing–urgent slow motion, and these visuals are, literally, breathtaking. We find ourselves hyperventilating with these two voyagers, eyes bulging– theirs and ours, frantic to grab onto any of the various cords dangling, umbilical-like, from their damaged craft, desperate for the pull of gravity to anchor them to something, anything, lest they be lost to the great void.
Sandra Bullock is the perfect heroine for us in this situation–an especially “down to earth,” warmly emotive actress with whom we easily identity; now, suddenly out of her element, she’s in a struggle less physical than ALIEN ‘s embattled Ripley- but no less muscular. In one wondrous moment, we see Ryan shedding her suit and relaxing into a fetal position; the camera lingers hypnotically on this strangely beautiful, but familiar image–and we understand immediately what the filmmakers are up to. Later, we hear distant communiques from earth: random voices, laughing, a baby crying–and we follow Ryan tunneling her way through a spacecraft. Cuaron and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (THE TREE OF LIFE) continue to guide us by way of astonishing visuals through yet another transformative landscape turned mystical terrain. I found myself in an altered state of consciousness, the camera perfectly positioned everywhere, and nowhere, charting a course as much inward as out.
Then, in one of the film’s most subtle but illuminating moments (DO see this in 3D!) Ryan closes her eyes, and as she begins to cry, one of her tears floats toward us, her own image reflected in that tiny, fluid sphere. This inexplicably tender image put me in mind of John Donne’s poem (A VALEDICTION: OF WEEPING) where lovers’ commingled tears, like globes, overflow each other’s reflections in an endless cycle of creation and destruction, life and death. The image of Ryan’s own self, born of her tears, is as physical as it is metaphysical: a vulnerable being, free floating in the fluid vacuum of space, and hovering on the brink of evolution.
GRAVITY’s final stunning moments fulfill that promise in a sequence that finds Ryan standing on a new shore –her own experience bubbling up from all of civilization and our primordial past, from the survival of the fittest, to the beginning of consciousness. Cuaron has fashioned a transcendent cinematic fable, leading us through a universe of pain, fear, wonder, sorrow, elation, and serendipity, all of it redeemed by gravity– and the pull of life. Enjoy the ride.