Sunday, October 13, 2013

Above the Earth

As Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity begins, two astronauts – Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) – are carrying out a mission at the Hubble telescope, respectively luxuriating in and trying to cope with the absence of normal physicality, the contrast between their phenomenally rarified perspective on the Earth and the more mundanely challenging task at hand. The chatter with Mission Control is easy and bucolic, suddenly hardening when they get a warning about approaching space debris. Chaos hits, and immediately it’s all about survival – with no other survivors, a ruined craft, and a declining oxygen supply.

In for a penny

I saw the film in the most expansive (and expensive) available format – IMAX 3-D – on the basis that with this kind of spectacle, it’s in for a penny, in for a pound. It’s worth it: 3-D has come a long way in the last few years, and Gravity is a sensuously immersive experience, giving you the feeling of privileged vigilance over, if not participation in, astonishing events. Cuaron has been talking in interviews about the various technological breakthroughs required in making the film: you occasionally get the impression of a cinema released from all constraints (according those of scientific accuracy, according to expert commentators), limited only by the capacity of dreams and imagination to keep flowing without faltering. The effect is all the more impressive for the times when Cuaron very specifically emphasizes, in contrast, the existence of the apparatus: subjective points of view from inside a space helmet, or water landing on the lens.

Fragility is baked into the story too. The interiors of the vessels – presumably realistically – exhibit the kind of old-fashioned technology design that all but evokes the rotary phone, along with bygone-era instruction manuals. It’s impossible not to reflect on the miracle of the original Apollo moon landings – carried out, it’s sometimes said, on the basis of less computing power than we can now carry round in our pockets – and on the tragedy that (insofar as we can see right now) man’s engagement with space looks more like a story of the past than one of the future. At various moments you feel the hard physical presence of hand rails and wheels and tethers: again, essentially primitive indicia of industrial society, in this context connoting both the limitations of human progress and a vaguely comforting form of continuity. The title itself has a similar duality, as the movie is less “about” gravity than its absence.

How tiny we are

These aspects of the film are easy to praise, expressed throughout in startlingly beautiful images (I don’t think I’ll ever forget a moment when Stone/Bullock, having just removed her suit and replenished her oxygen, simply allows herself to float and be renewed – an unforced evocation of something elemental). I find it a bit harder to assess other aspects of its relative achievements though. Peter Howell in the Star puts it this way: “Beyond sheer entertainment value — and there’s plenty of that — the film’s deeper meaning is profound appreciation of just how tiny we are in the vastness of the universe and how connected we are to the Earth’s embrace.”

This may indeed express Cuaron’s underlying intentions, but as deeper meanings go, it’s not much of one: our tininess in the vastness of the universe and reliance on the earth are, for lack of a better word, obvious, and whether one appreciates these matters profoundly or superficially doesn’t seem likely to make much difference to anything once the picture’s over. Howell goes on to add that “Cuarón is out to inspire us and make us believe in miracles,” but this is merely the intention of every other Hollywood movie from Rocky to The Blind Side, and frankly, you could well argue that for a country in such a deranged current state, it’s the height of bourgeois decadence to be swooning over such unrepresentative wonders.

That might seem like a trite series of objections to something that’s perhaps intended to inspire a wordless, inchoate awe, but it would be easy for mainstream cinema to be no more than a rush to build the biggest and the brightest, trying to dazzle us with images of Vegas so that we forget where we actually live. It seems to me a shame that Gravity has so little to offer as a study of people, especially given the unique situation in which it places them. Clooney’s presence seems to me especially problematic: he plays Kowalski as an unshakably optimistic, wise-cracking, but super-capable veteran, whose demeanour doesn’t crack even at his darkest moments. Such behaviour is a plausible reaction to extreme stress of course, especially among such experienced operators, but as presented here, it’s about the least interesting psychological course that could possibly have been followed.

Conjuring the sublime

Bullock’s character, on the other hand, comes with plenty of baggage – a daughter who died at the age of four, leaving her an emotional shell, and thoughts of whom occupy her heavily as she faces her own mortality. As presented here, the device seems like little more than a manipulation, albeit not as much of one as the film’s hoariest scene, which relies on giving physical space to Stone’s oxygen-deprived imaginings. It’s possible the banality of such devices is somewhat deliberate, as a kind of expression of ordinary human un-remarkableness in the most extreme of circumstances; even in the midst of unprecedented sensations and sights, we can’t hope to transform our basic matter in all its messiness, only to direct it as best we can (the opposite, really, of Howell’s interpretation about having us believe in miracles). But even if that’s the intention, Cuaron makes it much less interesting than it should be.

Liam Lacey, in his Globe and Mail review, remarks how there’s “something conceptually pure about a drama that pits one individual against a hostile environment,” but then ends up somewhere close to Howell, describing how the film “intimates mystery and profundity, with that mixture of beauty and terror that the Romantics called the sublime.” There’s an irony there: in one of the most famous expressions of that tradition, Wordsworth evokes the blessed mood in which the heavy and weary weight of all this unintelligible world is lightened.” In Gravity, you might say, the lightening of the world’s weight is (somewhat literally) the problem – the desire to return to it, to invert the usual direction of the sublime, becomes the driving force. This might mean Lacey has things the wrong way round, or might indicate how Gravity ultimately occupies a thematic space whose coordinates are as hard to pin down as passing shards.

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