Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Gravity

A couple of months ago the spacecraft Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, the first time anything made by humans left our solar system. It took Voyager 1 36 years to reach that far (or rather 35 because it took about a year until NASA got the data) and it is still going further and further away from home. The news of this breakthrough was unexpectedly moving to me, who first took a passionate interest in astronomy when I was about nine years old. As such I was enthusiastic about watching Gravity as soon as it came out. It too moved me. It is a film of great beauty and powerful emotions, and watching it again increased the feeling of awe. The one thing that I would have preferred was if there had been more silence and less music. Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) at one point says that what she likes best about space is the silence, and it is a shame Alfonso Cuarón does not share that feeling but put music to most scenes. (Beware, this post gives away important plot points, including the ending.)

It is occasionally said that the only thing that would unite all of humanity would be an attack from outer space, making us forget our national borders. One nice thing about Gravity is that there are no borders up there. Dr Stone moves from a US space shuttle to the primarily Russian ISS to the Chinese space station Tiangong (which at present is much smaller than in the film), and Earth as seen from space is a unified planet, where it is impossible to see where one country begins and another ends. It is even impossible to see that there are countries. But even though space is without borders, language is still an issue. Dr Stone has difficulties since she cannot read Russian or Chinese.

But the main thrust of the film is concerned with survival and life itself. Perhaps even the meaning of life. There is very little story in the film other than one person's frantic effort to stay alive, and the same person's acceptance that she will die. I do not believe that there is some larger meaning to our lives, or that there need to be one. But Gravity does suggest one, that the meaning of life is to live, to survive. And I like that.


When watching it the second time I thought, strangely perhaps, of Max Ophüls's very great The Reckless Moment (1949). There a housewife fights a relentless battle to keep her daughter and herself out of harm's way, in the form of a blackmailer. It was the simplicity and straightforwardness of the stories, one person's epic battle against an increasing amount of obstacles combined with elaborate camera work - very long takes with a moving camera with plenty of activity going on in the background and where the environment itself is an enemy, that I suppose made me think of them both. But there is a key difference. In The Reckless Moment it is specifically a woman's fight, in Gravity it is a human, rather than a woman, who is taking up the fight. In Swedish we have a gender-neutral word, neither han (he) nor hon (she) but hen (I wish there was an English word) and it is suitable here, not least since Ryan Stone is a woman with a male name. Dr Stone is fighting the fight as a representative of humanity, all alone. And Sandra Bullock's performance is superb.


Despite being something of a disaster movie the film is actually uplifting and affirmative. While I thought there was too much music in the film as a whole, in the final minutes the music was perfect, signalling the triumph of the human spirit and the exhilaration of being alive. When Dr Stone lands it is on Earth, no particular place but Earth itself, almost like an alien life form, or the first mammal coming out of the sea. Humanity is reborn. The film is a celebration of the will to live, and of the human capacity to survive. It is also a testament to the human capacity to create both art and technology. The same capacity that also managed to build a spacecraft that can travel beyond our solar system. Why build it? Because we can. Why live? Because we can.

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Cuarón has a response to my complaint about the music. "I knew we needed music to convey a certain energy, and while I’m sure there would be five people that would love nothingness, I want the film to be enjoyed by the entire audience." he said in an interview in Wired.

There has of course been a lot written about the ways Gravity is unrealistic. Personally I was annoyed by the way Kowalsky (George Clooney) was killed off. There was no force dragging him away from the ISS, even though he disconnected the wire he would have remained where he was. But it does not really matter. Narrative expedience is sometimes more important than complete adherence to the laws of physics.

5 comments:

  1. Noooo, the final minutes almost sinks the whole thing! Much too over the top, emotional and bombastic.

    And just for the heck of it, I'll argue that the meaning of life (in Gravity) is evolution. Which of course assumes survival...

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  2. Yes! Great post. Agree with the music in the end. It's perfect. Yeeees, Sofia, perfect. ;)

    I liked the music throughout. I can't remember being annoyed by it. Thought it was kind of subtle, just building tension.

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  3. Another thing. I would appreciate if you could change so comments can be made directly below the post in the same window, and not in a popup window as it is now. That will make it possible for me to subscribe to new comments on a post I commented myself.

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  4. Sofia, as I wrote "almost like an alien life form, or the first mammal coming out of the sea" I'm not opposed to an evolutionary interpretation of the film!

    Johan, is this better?

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