Everyone has seen Gravity, and most people have interpreted the film in a similar manner. Gravity is undoubtedly a 3D cinematic spectacle that immerses the viewer into the empty, lonely beauty of the nothingness that is space. The 3D is not only used to augment the palpable tension, with bits of debris flying at the screen; it is also used to heighten the depth and verisimilitude of this environment. This is helped along by the rumbling, ethereal sound design and director Alfonso Cuaron’s reliance on claustrophobic close-ups, even though the film takes place in the vastest possible setting: space.
The film has a flawed script, as many critics have identified. The opening dialogue is buoyed by exposition. The narrative is essentially Life of Pi without the clunky bookends. Some of the plot points are too convenient – this is George Clooney’s final mission, and Sandra Bullock’s first. The film tends to ‘tell’ the characters’ emotions through manipulative monologues rather than trusting Bullock and Clooney’s performances to ‘show’ their emotions. Various character strands are not developed to their full potential: Bullock’s Ryan Stone’s sense of guilt after potentially contributing to the cataclysm at the space station is barely touched upon, as is the death of her child. Despite this, the screenplay’s repetitive structure, formed around a relentless Murphy’s Law where everything that could go wrong does, is extremely effective in establishing the taut tension.
This, however, was my initial interpretation of Gravity. Barely a few hours after I watched the film in the cinema, the narratological flaws that permeate Cuaron’s script faded, almost entirely. The film’s innate beauty and suspense, though memorable, was not the main reason why Gravity stuck with me long after the credits rolled. I began to contemplate Gravity’s commentaries on broader concepts, like genre and character. Is the film science-fiction? Is it speculative fiction? Are the characters more complex than they would initially seem?
A few hours after watching Gravity, I spoke about the film and these issues with my fellow cinephile friend, Lorenzo Benitez. Instead of writing a full review of Gravity, I am going to provide an abridged transcript of my Facebook conversation with Lorenzo, because I think there were a lot of interesting ideas about the film (and film criticism in general) that naturally came about in our conversation. As a word of warning, this conversation does contain spoilers, but technically the title of the film is a spoiler.
Lorenzo: I just did. I’ve had to ponder it for a lot longer than I thought. I thought that the effects were amazing and that it is one of the year’s best films, but on an emotional level, the characters weren’t very strong. That being said, I’d probably still give it an 8/10 because it was one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in a long time. What did you think?
Me: I kind of agree and kind of disagree about the characters. It’s nowhere near as cold as 2001: A Space Odyssey – when I saw the bloodied hole left in the face of the third astronaut, it felt emotionally distressing and heart-wrenching to me. There’s no emotion when HAL9000 evicts one of the astronauts from the pod in 2001.
Lorenzo: It’s more of the characters’ genericism and the lack of development accompanying them. Do you get where I’m coming from?
Me: I know exactly what you mean, but I’m glad that an attempt was made at least to characterise them. I thought Ryan Stone’s characterisation was not as strong as Matt Kowalski’s. You have no idea about his life or what informs him. All you know is he is a storyteller and a bit of a smart-mouth. However, I thought Sandra Bullock’s performance was better than George Clooney’s.
Lorenzo: I thought there was a lot of ambiguity surrounding Bullock’s character. I felt as though I knew Clooney better, but that’s probably because of something subjective in my own life. He reminded me of this one uncle I have who’s almost exactly like him, personality-wise. Being totally objective about the characters and what was shown to us, you’re right.
Me: Do you think Gravity is sci-fi?
Lorenzo: I would say no. Sci-fi is somewhat satirical in that it extrapolates a problem that exists in the present and exaggerates it in a different setting, which is, more often than not, the future. Gravity wasn’t really offering any societal commentary. It was just a suspenseful film set in space.
Me: Instinctively, that’s exactly what I think. Sci-fi films are often based on hyperbolically escalating reality, but even more so, sci-fi films are about either about the evolution of technology, or the evolution of humanity. The best sci-fi films do both – 2001, Blade Runner, etc. I can safely say that Gravity isn’t speculative fiction, because even though the film escalates reality to the unlikely, the events in the film could plausibly take place today. While, on the surface, the film does not seem to be about the evolution of technology and humanity, there are a lot of sci-fi touches that made me think more about what the film is thematically trying to say. I think it is about the evolution of humanity on a much smaller scale. Like when Ryan Stone slowly crawls up into the foetal position: that’s such a sci-fi staple (bordering on cliché) to indicate human evolution. This is why I think Gravity ultimately does count as sci-fi, just on a de-escalated level.
Lorenzo: There were quite a few references to other sci-fi films. This may seem weird, but the moment she stripped off her space suit when she got in, I immediately thought of Sigourney Weaver from Alien. Even her outfit was very similar. The foetal position reminded me of the star child from 2001.
Me: Yeah the star baby homage is obvious too. Which is why I keep wondering why it is paying homage to so many sci-fi flicks when it doesn’t ordinarily appear to be sci-fi: which makes me think it is trying to say something more than just what’s on the surface. The final low-angle shot of Bullock on Earth, depicting her as an empowered figure, is a classic final sci-fi shot – it’s the end of 2001, but de-escalated. She is the next stage of human evolution.
Lorenzo: And how her legs are stunted from the zero-gravity, so it looks like she has to learn how to walk again. She might walk a little further down the track and discover the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the ground. Even though the film didn’t explicitly communicate any single message regarding the state of humanity in my opinion, one might argue that the film puts its viewers in a state of mind that invites a re-examination of mankind and its achievements. Many astronauts have described the view of earth from space as being one that fills them with awe – awe for how far humanity has come in being able to send them there, but also a realisation of mankind’s insignificance in the universe.
Me: Interesting point. The loneliness just permeates the entire film, which makes it so fatalistic. The ‘life in space is impossible’ title-card at the start just like the ‘in space, no-one can hear you scream’ tagline for Alien, tailored for a more nihilistic, fatalistic generation.
Lorenzo: Then again, one has to consider whether or not Cuaron really meant for it to be that nuanced a film.
Me: I don’t think it matters.
Lorenzo: Result over intention. Let art grow into something it was never intended to be. I know the rules of postmodernism.
Me: It is a core tenet of postmodern cinematic analysis – that the responder is more important than the composer in the process of generating meaning.
Lorenzo: I agree with that, but does that mean we should entirely ignore what might’ve been his possible intention?
Me: I don’t think you need to ignore it, but ultimately understanding a film is about what you think it’s about, not what the director wants it to be about. As an auteur, I’m sure Michael Bay wants his films to be about something, but I don’t get anything out of them. What didn’t you like about Gravity?
Lorenzo: Like you, the things I didn’t like about it weren’t very major; namely the characterisation, but even then, I’m willing to let that slide.
Me: The more I think about it, Ryan Stone’s characterisation is actually making more sense to me now, when you think of it in the context of de-escalated sci-fi. And even horror – she’s the final girl. She’s Ellen Ripley.
I think her character is an archetype, without much depth to her or anything that distinguishes her that is vaguely interesting or unique (unlike Matt Kowalski’s verbosity and charm). But her archetype is the right archetype for this movie – she’s somewhere between the star baby from 2001 and Ripley from Alien. She is physically and psychologically altered by the experience – her arc is a constant vacillation in and out of panic and resilience. She is always coming in and out of isolation – alienation if you will – and each time she comes out of isolation, her character grows and becomes more resilient, which makes the next time she is in jeopardy and panics easier to psychologically overcome.
Each time she comes out of isolation is kind of like the monolith in 2001 – the signifier in a new stage for her human development. For example, when she takes off the space suit for the first time in the space station, and when she passes out and hallucinates that Kowalski has come back, are the times where she feels as though she has come out of isolation. Ultimately, I don’t think her character, insofar as her characteristics and traits, is particularly interesting: the setup of the characters is pretty convenient and stock-standard. This is her first mission, this is his last. Her child died, which is a classic melodramatic cliché that isn’t really followed up on. But even though her arc isn’t anything new, I’m coming around to her character’s progression now that I’ve thought more about the film’s thematic undercurrents.