Gravity: A Space Oddity
By Kiomars Vejdani
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
USA/United Kingdom 2013
We have direct experience of gravity, as it is normally known to us, for only a few moments in the film when protagonist’s feet comes into firm contact with the ground. For the rest of the film our experience of it is indirect. We feel the effect of gravity through its absence, or to be more precise through zero gravity as it exists in outer space.
Alfonso Cuaron uses his creative skill and mastery of form to produce such a space. He makes audience share the experience of being in space. Cuaron’s work is one of the best example of use of 3D as part of cinematic language. His control of elements and attention to details is noticeable at every moment of the film. In this weightless world everything, people as well as objects, float continuously. People's dreamlike movement is choreographed with the beauty of a ballet. (The creation of such a space is the result of collaboration between Cuaron and his visual effect supervisor Tim Webber.) Normal ways of frame composition is discarded. People are framed from every possible angle, not only the standard upright one, but also diagonal, horizontal, or even upside down as required by the situation. Camera with its continuous movement follows people and objects in the frame, hovers around them, changing its perspective from moment to moment. (In this respect Cuaron is greatly helped by his director of photography Emanuel Lubezki).
Cuaron conveys the feeling of infinity of space through his long takes. (The first shot of the film lasts more than twelve minutes.) In these long takes patterns within the frame change non-stop in a kaleidoscopic way with objects and images replacing one another. Darkness of space makes way for brightness of planet earth before a space station enters the frame. As it gets closer we see a tiny figure of a man in a long shot. The man gradually gets closer till we have his face in a close up, before camera leaves him behind and continues with its hovering. The shot only terminates when a cut is dramatically necessary. In this ever changing scenery only one factor remains constant and that is the beauty of images, from sunrise on planet earth to star studded dark sky. The outer space has never been more beautiful.
Cuaron uses the vast expanse of universe as a backdrop for his human drama. More than realistic presentation of outer space he pays attention to people in their isolation inside the space station. In this respect his film reminds us of John Carpenter’s Dark Star or for that matter David Bowie's Space Oddity.
Cuaron’s priority goes to presenting the world of his protagonist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock in the performance of her career). Cuaron gives us her full range of thoughts and feelings at every moment of the film, from her initial insecurity and lack of self confidence, her panic when faced with life threatening elements, her dependence on her colleague, mentor and protector Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), the warmth of their friendship, her sorrows of bereavement, old ones (death of her child) as well as new ones, her frustration and anger when facing insurmountable problems, her despair of facing approaching death, her mental confusion due to lack of oxygen, and finally her courage to fight back.
Cuaron follows with single mindedness her progress and evolution to the level of strength enabling her to deal with her inner problems (related to the death of her daughter) as well as fighting against the dangers in space to save her own life. In pursue of his aim Cuaron is prepared to sacrifice everything else. (Not very often a filmmaker kills his box office star within the first half an hour of the film.)
I do not think I will give away much of the plot if I say it is the story of survival. It is the dramatic and thematic requirement of the film that Stone should make it home, and audience expects her to do so from the word go.
Our first impression of space is its calmness and serenity. When Ryan Stone is asked what she likes most about space she says "It is so peaceful." But this peacefulness is deceptive as there is threatening side to space which could easily cost lives. Cuaron conveys the horror of such a death at the moment when Stone suddenly comes face to face with the dead body of an astronaut inside the broken space ship. Death could occur in a violent way such as being hit by a floating object including debris of broken space ships ( as shown by the image of the astronaut with his face completely smashed behind his broken helmet). Or it could be less drastic (but not necessarily less horrifying) like being separated from space ship and drifting away until the supply of oxygen runs out.
Ryan Stone faces both of these dangers. She finds herself in the way of floating debris and is nearly hit by them. Also at one stage she almost misses her station, only manages to hold on to it and get into her capsule with great difficulty and after a hard struggle. She only begins to find her strength after she fails to save her colleague and has to accept the situations as unavoidable if not necessary (in Matt's words she has "to learn to let go"). She realises that from now on she has only to rely on herself . As her self confidence builds up she finds courage and ability to cope with whatever problem and obstacle comes her way.
In parallel with increase in the level of her courage and determination, the film's tempo also gets faster. The tempo reaches its maximum at the climax of the film coinciding with the moment of entering the earth’s atmosphere, with breath taking image of capsule and debris aflame running in parallel above the surface of the earth.
For all the grandeur and splendour of outer space the priority of Cuaron’s affection goes for the little planet earth and the life that exists on it. He shows his love of life with the shot of a frog swimming in the water. He conveys his belief in the value of planet as home through his protagonist grasping firmly and endearingly a fistful of wet sand on the beach. Ryan Stone achieves what is most values by Cuaron and he celebrates her victory with the low angle upright shot of her in the most powerful state.
But there is still one stage left to complete the film’s theme. When Ryan was at the depth of her despair and had given up all hope of survival, Matt suddenly (and unrealistically) enters her capsule, teaches her how to solve her problem, and gives hope to live and encouragement to finish the journey. Matt’s apparition can be interpreted in two ways. We can see him as Ryan’s hallucination and part of her mental confusion. Or we can decide that he has a spiritual reality existing as Ryan’s guardian angel. It seems Cuaron has chosen the spiritual explanation by making his protagonist believe in life existence after death. In Ryan's mind Matt has returned to help her to find her way home. She has continued dialogue with Matt during the rest of the journey. (Incidentally this line of thought and belief helps Ryan to overcome the bereavement of loss of her daughter.)
In the final stages the film takes on a religious tone. Cuaron conveys this and his belief in God with a religious picture in Russian spaceship and statue of Buddha in the Chinese one. But above all in Ryan's belief in a power superior to hers, even after all the courage and determination she has shown to reach her destination. Her whisper of "thank you" on the beach is the best proof of it.