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Gravity (2013)
Don't let go.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Science Fiction

Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant medical engineer on her first Shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky in command of his last flight before retiring. But on a seemingly routine spacewalk, disaster strikes. The Shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalsky completely alone-tethered to nothing but each other and spiraling out into the blackness of space. The deafening silence tells them they have lost any link to Earth and any chance for rescue. As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left. But the only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space.

Gravity (2013)

The Other Red Shoe

One use of science fiction is to purify the threads of a story by displacing them from the distracting familiar. This gives more than clarity; it often frees the narrative to rest in our souls rather than our eyes, rather like the contra-intuitive dynamics about orbital mechanics. If you speed up, you go slower.

This story is distilled. There is no villain, no love dance. We have only three characters. As with many films, the inner crisis of our central character is impossible to film, so we fold it onto an external, visualisable phenomenon but here it is also pure, austere. It allows the story to be independent from genre. So when a saucy astronaut uses a line from Star Wars, we make the connection through real life instead of film-to-film. Of course that guy would say such a thing. When the lost guy, usually the hero, miraculously appears well after we have forgotten him, we have no doubt that this film will not follow the usual trajectory of him saving the ‘girl.‘

So this worked for me, worked in a far better and deeper way than the actress could know. She delivered a simple skeleton: broken woman recommits to life. Perhaps this is something she knows. This viewer embossed his own narratives, and became totally committed himself. The filmmaker understood how to help this, so he creates polar environments. One is celestial and in being full is empty. No sound. No passion.

The other is physical environments we only see when purged of the living, but very heavily populated by the artefacts of life. Photos of course, but the power is in the everyday: a dental retainer, mementos from the astronauts‘ families, ordinary trash. These tell us more about the background humanity than we could have gotten from a few actors trying to collectively deliver the sense of the race.

So we can readily put ourselves here. We can readily engage with the notion of needing to fall out of mourning and into commitment. We have something close to a literal birth at the end. These things are very difficult to end well and even here the filmmaker makes good choices.

I like that it is entirely cinematic. If we need a fire extinguisher, then earlier we were given in offhandedly. If we need the noir notion of the innocent randomly challenged, we are given it visually — paralleled by the random loss of a child ‘for no reason.‘ If we need the requisite three visual ouroboros, we are given some rather powerful images: the ten minute meditation at the beginning; a lovely, sustained triumphant foetal position on the first accomplishment; a profound fireworks which includes the capsule containing by this time ourselves.

We do have precedent. ‘2001’ was a tryst with God through weakness; ‘Solyaris’ is not Tarkovksy‘s greatest achievement, but it may have been his most ambitious vision of introspection. The Solaris remake (with George Clooney!) was technically better but with less ambiguous reality. Sunshine was more ambitious than any of them in this regard of inner/outer, but included some ‘action‘ stuff for better or worse.

(Try editing that film in your mind.)

I saw this in 3D and am profoundly thankful. I never noticed a gratuitous effect, and only once was reminded of the cheap glasses on my nose: when a tear floated close and was snapped into focus. That said…

I have written in these comments many times about the evolution of the camera. I believe we are in a state of accelerated evolution in how cameras are used and consequently how we dream — when we dream semi-lucidly. The camera used to be and move where a man could. Then we got dynamisms in the curious and ironic eye. Then we got the sailing and noir camera. They did extraordinary things but never something that a physical camera could not do.

Pixar changed this with stances and motion tropes not possible with physical cameras, and we embraced it. Now you can find this in mundane action movies like Transformers. How to innovate? Cuarón does what I think nearly impossible: he gives the supernatural camera eye a curious passion. Where someone else would draw in to display some detail, he withdraws into context. Where another may feign ‘realism‘ he embraces the unreal vision of nature. Where a camera would be expected to be sympathetic, his is cold and vice versa. I feel like I trusted this man with my life and would do so again.

Posted in 2013

Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.


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