Most movies that break out of the pack, with their own special blend of technique and vision, can be said to defy categories. But Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which drew massive audiences this weekend and, I suspect, spoke to them (as it did to me) in a powerful and transporting way, may be a unique case. Offhand, I can’t name a science fiction movie that mesmerizes you because it feels at once so novel and so retro, so thrillingly forward-thinking and so exquisitely cast from the visual poetry of a long-ago era. Just think about it:
Gravity is set in outer space, so it fits snugly into the candy-counter Hollywood that has now devoted decades to literally taking audiences out of this world. At the same time, the movie is a disarmingly low-key drama of two U.S. shuttle voyagers, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock at their most emotionally grounded, who wind up lost in space, with no warp speed or wizardry to help them.
In the age of CGI, Gravity is a visually awesome bobbing-in-the-void adventure that takes special effects to astounding new levels of you-are-there authenticity. At the same time, the real miracle of the effects is that they’re so seamless and artful and encompassing, so deep-woven into the DNA of the story, that you can actually forget all about them. You’re not watching a “special effects movie.” You’re simply out there, in space.
In an era dominated by fantasy, Gravity offers everything that audiences tend to seek from a big-budget popcorn blockbuster geared to your inner 12-year-old. The movie is undeniably a “thrill ride,” it features human beings flying through the air, it has brain-boggling explosions and hurtling death drops and the suck-in-your-breath suspense of charging at top speed through the galactic stratosphere. At the same time, Gravity is so scrupulously rooted in the technology of space travel as it exists today that it would, in a sense, be borderline inaccurate to describe the movie as “sci-fi.” It’s an out-of-this-world adventure utterly tethered to the possibilities of this world.
Fantasy and reality. High concept and high artistry. Outer space and Earth. A CGI adventure with a heartbeat. Gravity doesn’t just combine two schools of entertainment; it fuses and reconciles the opposing impulses of our movie culture. In a way, it takes us back 40 years (or more), restoring the mystery of outer space as a realm that still has the power to conquer us even though we delude ourselves into thinking that we’ve conquered it. The last time a movie plugged us into this level of contemplation of the awe and terror of space travel, it was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie that casts its shadow over Gravity. For Kubrick, though he was crafting a metaphysical head trip, was very much drawn to the technological possibilities of space travel as they existed at the time. The free-floating, body-glide logistics of zero gravity, the banality of glitchy problem-solving set against the scary magnificence of the solar system, the sheer luminescent beauty of how the earth looks from space – if it’s true that there are no atheists in foxholes, it may also be true that there are no atheists orbiting the earth, since to stare at our planet from 600 kilometers above it is to realize, in a new way, how we fit into it, and how it fits into the cosmos.
Kubrick, in 1968, got there first, but Gravity, a movie made 45 years later, taps into some of that same starry-night splendiferous awe, which Cuarón evokes with his own more offhand virtuosity; he makes space-walking seem an activity as natural as jogging. Kubrick made you feel the uncanny majesty of space; Cuarón, knowing that he can’t top those dancing satellites and “The Blue Danube,” employs a visual wit cut with anxiety to make us feel the disorienting, topsy-turvy threat of space. The revelation of Gravity is its flowing, moment-to-moment reality: It’s a ride about getting back home, which is why (as I stated in my review) it taps into the spirit of all of us who may feel, these days, just a little adrift.
But if it’s noteworthy, and fairly obvious, that Gravity summons a touch of the grandeur, and emotional gravity, of 2001, what’s every bit as noteworthy, and maybe not as obvious, is how far the movie strays from the spirit of that other iconic big-screen space adventure of the last half century. I refer, of course, to Star Wars (excuse me, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope). Now, it may seem silly and outwardly irrelevant to compare the two films. Star Wars, when it came out and altered the essential paradigm of pop culture in 1977, was a hyper-zappy Buck Rogers-meets-joystick-with-a-touch-of-Gandalf cosmic-galactic adventure. It was the definition of glorious escapism. We all know the ways it changed Hollywood, and what it took movies toward. Yet consider, in hindsight, what this nearly perfect confection of thrills and serial pulp and technology, through no fault of its own, took us from. It took us away from any true sense of regarding outer space as a spiritual extension of the earth.
Hollywood had been busy imagining the spectacle of space travel since the early ’50s, with movies like Rocketship X-M (1950) and Destination Moon (1950) and Forbidden Planet (1956) and From the Earth to the Moon (1958). But with the launch of the first space flight, the Sputnik 1 in 1957, and then President Kennedy’s fabled 1962 declaration that America would go to the moon, reality caught up with science fiction, and was therefore destined to remake it. It didn’t happen for a while, though. Lost in Space, the CBS television series that premiered in 1965, was an enjoyable trash compactor that recycled all those sinister/otherworldly outer-space plots from the ’50s, and by the time Star Trek premiered in 1966, it had locked in the mythology of space fiction as a deep-into-the-future concoction of alien and monster fantasy. It took Kubrick’s genius in 2001 to make us realize that the mystery of space didn’t need to be heightened into cornball pulp. In a way, the most resonant space movies of the late ’60s were all conceived in anticipation of the moon landing: not just 2001 but Robert Altman’s haunting Countdown (1968) and also Marooned, the 1969 tale of three astronauts stranded in space that parallels the plot of Gravity.
What no one could have guessed is that the moon shot, on July 20, 1969, would be our first and last money shot. Neil Armstrong’s walk on the lunar landscape was experienced as the dawn of a new era (it was mankind’s cosmic baby steps), but it was really more of an ending than a beginning. I would argue that the kickoff of America’s decline can be charted through our collective loss of excitement and faith in the promise of the space program. Yes, we would go up there again, to the moon and further, and maybe someday we would travel to Mars and beyond. But once we had experienced, first hand, the chalky bleak barrenness of the moon, what began to leak away fairly quickly was the promise that these miraculous accomplishments could somehow change our destiny. The botched flights that began to bedevil the space program played as national metaphors. The debacle, and heroic save, of the Apollo 13 mission was a galvanizing moment of American grace under pressure, but what it said to us on a psycho-poetic level is that where we once strove to reach new worlds, now we were just striving to get back in one piece. And right when the space shuttle was finally making outer-space travel appear comfortably routine, the 1986 Challenger disaster cruelly slammed the door on the possibilities of civilians in space, just as that door had been opened.
In the midst of all this, space in the movies migrated back to where, in the innocent ’50s, it had once resided: the realm of sci-fi fairy tales and nightmares and great escape. Star Wars gave rise to both Alien and the launch of the Star Trek movies (both in 1979), and it also inspired tons of fanciful space trash, some of it fun, most of it forgettable (remember The Last Starfighter? SpaceCamp? Stargate? Mission to Mars?). Outside of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), a great movie that now looks better than ever (if you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and experience its humane majesty), Hollywood all but abandoned space as a realm of reality.
But that’s what Gravity brings us back to. This is a movie that refuses in any way to cast the space program in mythological terms. From the opening moments, in which we hear humdrum radio burbles of talk between Houston and the astronauts, space travel is presented as strictly routine. The thrill is gone. Yet as Clooney’s Matt Kowalski observes, “You can’t beat the view,” and the movie is just knowing enough about the mystical force of being up there, above it all, with the earth spread out below, to suggest that America, in its new state of technological know-how (our mobile gizmos! our spooky surveillance systems! our space program that chugs along without even being noticed by the mass media!), is deluding itself. We don’t see the mystery any more because we’ve shut it out. Yet if we opened our eyes, if would be right there in front of us. A movie like Gravity hits a nerve because, like no science-fiction movie in a very long time, it connects us back to the mystery. And it says that when everything falls apart, scrambling to get back home in one piece isn’t just an act of desperation. In its way, it’s a great mission. It’s our adventure.
So did you see Gravity this weekend? What did you think of it? How did it compare to other movies set in outer space? Did it make you think of previous ones, or is it its own unique vision?