Spirituality in Space
Space is frightening. It transcends logical thought. There’s no compass, there’s just darkness, exponentially expanding each day. It is a constant source of inspiration and mystery, a seductive and humbling black abyss piquing interest and exploration by scientists, governments, and likely anyone who admires a moonlit night. And because so much is still unknown, it is also a place that fosters a creative imagination, which for a filmmaker is a wonderful thing.
Unlike anything seen and experienced before in a theater, director Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a masterwork of three dimensional innovation and storytelling. Cuarón’s creative imagination is not built on new worlds, saturated colors, and alien creatures (See Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, etc.). He is content with the reality we know, but not with what we’ve seen from it. From his imagination spawns an immersive cinematic picture unparalleled in the 3D technology we have been fed (sometimes forced) by other ambitious predecessors, James Cameron included. After four years of production, his tinkering and perfecting feels fully realized. Space, even in close proximity to earth, he suggests, can be both terrifying and terrifyingly beautiful.
So I imagine that’s why the opening scene is around 15 minutes in length, all in one long, single shot: a mostly silent, ethereal, illuminating, and haunting portrait that floats and hovers above the earth’s blue-glowing atmosphere. Eventually our two main characters come into focus, or rather their voices do. Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock and Matt Kawolski, given a reliably silky smooth smile by George Clooney, play astronauts on a mission to repair the Hubble Telescope, updating their commander Houston (Ed Harris) on their progress. It is Stone’s first mission to space and she’s attached by a safety rope. Kowalski is a veteran, and jetpacks his way around the craft. Both levels of experience are portrayed scrupulously, identified in his confident sarcastic jokes and in her fidgety gadget maneuvering.
In this setting, swirling closely around our two leads, space whispers its calm poetic quiet, but it also screams a looming urgency, a conflation Cuarón finds particularly fascinating. This convergence is spurred on by Houston, who warns them about imminent space debris hurtling in their trajectory, prompting an emergency protocol. The hunks of metal rapidly approach as speeding missiles and tear apart their ship, images sparse with the expected whistle and colliding, exploding noise. The muted destruction finds its energy from Stone’s panicking shrills as she’s thrown around like an amusement ride, and from Kowalski’s therapeutic, informative commands. “Detach,” he says, over and over. She finally obeys.
It’s here where the film can play as some sort of nightmarish, nauseous landscape for some, as Stone spins into the infinite abyss of darkness, somersaulting away. Part of the wonder of this film is its reestablishment of perspective. We share Stone’s disorienting orbit often through an intimate, video game-like first person lens. Later, once Stone reattaches to Kowalski on their way to the International Space Station, a feat apparently discredited by scientists, we switch to a wide angle shot and follow two white dots engulfed in their overpowering backdrop.
“Life in space is impossible,” is one of the taglines that opens the film and consequently sets the mood. Logistically this is true, as evidenced in Stone’s rapidly declining tank of oxygen, but for her, life in space is also desirable. While slowly floating to their next destinations, the astronauts fill time chattering (occasionally disrupting the mood) with each other and Stone eventually admits her ongoing battle with depression ever since her four-year-old daughter recently died. Above her Midwestern home and the painful memories, Stone early on mutters her adoration of space’s silence. Cuarón lets that thought linger, suggesting her current ecstasy in quiet thought is only a fleeting projection of her despair.
Of course this backstory becomes paramount in Stone’s will to survive, which takes quite a physical beating. Later another storm of debris hits the space station, shattering metal and entangling a landing parachute, cords twisting and jamming. Stone swims her way out of a fire and later shares a powerfully emotional dialogue with a loose radio wave, quickly turning into an existential monologue. Loneliness takes on new form from above the earth: powerfully cosmetic and cosmic, and just as equally silent and segregating.
Under the veneer of expository logistics, this is a cutthroat and deeply spiritual film. There are exquisite shots of Bullock huddled in the fetal position, umbilical cord and all, and space echoes its cyclical ethos, atmosphere built of dust and particles with the constant ability to fuse life. Guided by the cinematography of Emmanuelle Lubezki, whose recent work astounded in The Tree of Life, Cuarón evokes space and earth’s glow in similar reverential harmony. The stunning juxtaposition of splintered debris over the indiscriminate oceans and darkened land masses is at once cataclysmic and peaceful, a catastrophe rendered in perfect light.
Bullock is fantastic, and between whimpers and self-calming eventually emerges out of her spacesuit like Sigourney Weaver in Alien, hair cropped and in her skivvies. Cuarón has typically engaged in the early miseries and miscalculations of teenagers in his films Y Tu Mama Tambien and the third Harry Potter installment. Here, midlife presents different challenges for a director akin to angst and pubescent confusion. Stone carries a mental baggage with her that space cannot render weightless, even if the camera itself embodies that principle. Cuarón, who wrote the script with his son Jonás, bolstered by a subtly powerful score from Steven Price, within 90 minutes masterfully elucidates the real magnitude of adult personal anxiety and its humbling importance in the universe.
And as we survey that beaming blue earth we call home, and observe the differing religious totems that sit in each space shuttle, a wonderful theological irony emerges. In times of pain and celebration, all denominations of people tend to raise their head to the sky in search or exaltation of God. But where do you look in space when there’s no directional vocabulary? There is no up or down for Stone. Here, her only hope, her search for meaning and rebirth, is back on earth, to return to the messiness from which everyone else looks to escape.
Photos courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures
- Review: Gravity (2013) (monsterzeronj.wordpress.com)
- George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are out of this world in Gravity (metro.co.uk)
- Gravity Perfects 3D, Spoils Space (stupidopinionswrittenpoorly.wordpress.com)