Alfonso Cuaron’s new film soars as a 3-D spectacle, but it explores the human dimension through a clichéd and un-critically gendered lens.
Crisp white text fades into view on the looming black backdrop. It stares the audience in the eye with formidable sincerity: “Life in space is impossible.” A Russian attempt to destroy an old satellite has gone awry, and space technicians Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) must fight for survival amid onslaughts of wayward space debris, steadily depleting oxygen levels, and the absence of the film’s namesake force.
Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a study in tension, a taut rubber band of a film: the memory of that unforgiving black-and-white text reminds us of the stakes as its protagonists navigate the territory between breaking point and the catapulting momentum of letting go. The result is gripping and intense. The terrifying prospect of finding oneself adrift in an infinite vacuum is artfully cogent, and the grandiose soundtrack heightens the tension through its well-placed silences and crescendos.
The protagonists of the film frequently comment upon the spectacular view, and rightly so: Gravity is visually stunning. Cuaron’s team went to great lengths to ensure this; their extensive study of thousands of images and hours of footage provided by NASA is highly evident. The film’s detailed renderings instil a sense of believability that transcends pure aesthetic spectacle. In addition, 3-D technology complements these visual qualities to immersive effect, rather than settling for cheesy ‘jump out’ moments. As a sceptic of the 3-D trend, I was pleasantly surprised.
Yet alongside Gravity’s sublime beauty and deft deployment of thrill, there exists an incongruent conflict of interest. Bullock and Clooney both deliver commendable performances as the baggage-laden Ryan Stone and jovial Matt Kowalski, and it is due to this that we are left with a film that at least seems meaningful, even when the pretence of depth rings hollow in the end.
Gravity’s problem is that it explores the human issues at play through a clichéd and un-critically gendered lens.
Ryan Stone’s existential despair is predictably wound up with her reproductive role as a female. Named by a father who wanted a son, mother to a child that is no longer alive, the boyish Stone fulfils the stereotypical role of ‘displaced career woman’. Numbed by the pain of her failed procreative endeavours, she thrusts herself into her work—all the way into outer space. A career that could signify intelligence and strength is instead framed as a mode of escape, evoking a sense of flawed weakness and placing Stone out of her depth in a situation that ignites her womanly hysteria. Indeed, as chaos unfolds around her, Stone’s volatile oscillation between stoic detachment and mania is posited as deeply rooted in her personal loss and the biological meaninglessness that it signifies for her.
By contrast, Kowalski is the wisecracking antithesis to Stone’s panic and fear. Clooney banters with smooth finesse as the likeable space cowboy whose soothing coercion makes Stone’s survival a possibility. Something about this role seems too comfortable, his reply to Stone’s feelings of failure, loss, and abjection too simple. The outcome is convenient, but unsatisfying. Cuaron seems to want these interactions to mean more than they can, and it’s a romantic notion—the primal search for meaning in the face of paralysing infinity—but when that search seems to boil down to finding a suave white knight to whisper in your ear, the quest begins to feel less than aspirational.
Typically, we see tropes utilised in the thriller genre as a kind of lazy option for directors, putting characters’ human aspects in the backseat and ensuring that the plot-driven action remains the focus of our attention. Cuaron has not allowed Stone and Kowalski to function in this way. Stone’s psyche tries to become a centrepiece in the film, but what is uncovered feels like a placeholder for what could have been a poignant investigation of humanity, fear, and existential dread. Instead, we are presented with a lot of heavy breathing, wistful melodrama and an overt lack of subtlety (see: a back-lit Bullock floating in zero-G foetal position). It all feels like a cop-out.
That said, I suppose I do share a small affinity with Ryan Stone. I find myself grappling amongst the space junk, swept up in the frenzy of disaster, desperately desiring a meaningful revelation. Gravity is beautiful yet sigh-inducing, enthralling yet philosophically stagnant. I watch Bullock’s space-suit-clad body clumsily propelling through the black abyss, accurately mapped galaxies glowing behind her. I take a cue from Stone and turn to Kowalski, seeking a respite from my frustration. He quips: “You can’t beat the view!” and in a sense he’s right: the view is quite possibly the best thing about this film.