Is Anybody Out There?
by Brody Rossiter
An eternal backdrop of the unknown; the pinnacle of human exploration; the birthplace of all mankind – from the tiniest of details to the most astonishing of revelations, we have learnt much of outer space during our time upon this planet, yet a vast galaxy of mystery still lies beyond the clouds. Perhaps this sense of unparalleled wonder is why space has provided the perfect proving ground for many of cinema’s most powerful and revelatory fables concerning human self-discovery. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is no exception to this distinguished cinematic accolade – the director joining the ranks of filmmaking greats such as Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris) and Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey).
Today, the Apollo 11 moon-landing seems like an age ago. Those celebrated black and white pictures beamed to earth live from the moon’s surface (unless you have a theory to the contrary…) buzz, bleep and shudder with interplanetary static and radio wave interference like ancient relics of yesteryear recovered via TV specials and YouTube. The immortal words of Neil Armstrong ring out throughout classrooms and popular culture, providing a perpetual reminder of the leaps which have proven truly “giant” and monumental throughout our history – but our 21st century vision of space is a far different one from that which Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin unveiled to the world on July 21st, 1969.
Space is the final frontier into which we boldly go, a battleground between a Rebel Alliance and a Galactic Empire, and an intergalactic hunting ground where the monsters mostly come out at night… mostly. We have ruled over its vast expanses several times over and fought epic wars over its resources and borders. The space of our own creation is a literal blank canvas upon which the wildest of storytellers can run free, painting their bizarre notions with laser beams and fantastical anomalies. We witness our space in all its big screen, high-definition beauty; solar flares, dying stars, and faster than light travel shower the screen with light, as Jackson Pollock would a canvas with multi-coloured paint. Whether science-fiction or scripts concocted from the realities of our own technological marvels, it is often the grand make-believe spectacle of space which takes centre stage in our mind’s eye. Yet back in reality, looking skyward with our toes submerged in Earth’s primordial soup, we fear that we will never truly conquer that which once seemed only a rocket trip away.
“Earth is a constant presence reminding us where we come from…where human connection is, where life is.” – Alfonso Cuarón
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity may well be the most authentic sci-fi movie in recent memory. Yes, perhaps there are errors from a scientific point of view which veer toward those aforementioned elements of fantasy, but emotionally the picture deals strictly in the real. Immediately audiences are confronted with a sobering dose of truth, reaffirming the fact that decades of books, films, and television have eroded; only once have we truly prevailed over space, and we’re not even convinced that actually happened.
Much of the critical conversation regarding Gravity has focused upon its masterful use of visual effects, CGI, and animation. The picture’s implementation of 3D technology proving an invaluable tool of immersion, as deadly chunks of space debris suddenly raced past your very eyes, before innocently floating off into the abyss. We witness many of the harrowing set pieces from Dr. Ryan Stone’s perspective, surrounded by unseen dangers and reaching with outstretched arms – fingertips away from life, or ultimately death. While the creation of never-before-seen lightbox and camera technologies ensured that the unfilmable picture Cuarón envisioned could be realised for audiences to experience in the most naturalistic manner possible. Despite the implementation of this cold, lifeless mass of hardware, barriers between the audience and Gravity’s protagonists, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), and a personified outer-space (the deadly black void), aren’t created but rather torn down by such ingenuity. Gravity is not a film which forgoes substance in favour of style, but one which utilises its form of visual storytelling to explore a myriad of complex and poignant themes through metaphor.
“It’s a story about what makes us try when there’s nothing left to try for.” – Sandra Bullock
Gravity is a tale of human survival in the face of the greatest, most insurmountable of odds – a story of adversities. Not just the adversities faced by individuals hundreds of thousands of miles away from home, but the ones we experience throughout our everyday lives. Sometimes we too feel as though we are powerlessly floating throughout life with nothing to grab onto, and with no means of slowing ourselves down – a feeling explicitly mirrored onscreen as Ryan and Matt become untethered from their Explorer space shuttle. Despite its grandiose setting, Gravity’s microscopic focus upon Ryan’s physical and spiritual journey elegantly explores themes of life, death, sacrifice and rebirth. It strives to expose the true depth and resiliency of the human spirit in the same manner as a timeless allegory of Greek mythology. Never is this more evident than during one of Gravity’s most poignant scenes, Ryan’s rebirth.
“For a moment Ryan simply hangs in suspension, a fly in amber, surrendering to the poetry of the planets, rotating slowly in the cabin’s womb.” – Gravity script excerpt
We witness Ryan – a woman once stricken by anxiety and the sudden death of her four-year-old daughter – figuratively shed the frailties of her old skin and awaken with a newfound strength with which to save herself. The spirit which first allowed mankind to break though the Earth’s atmosphere, alongside our innate instinct to survive, rekindled and distilled into one beautiful, transcendent piece of imagery.
“The technology was never the motivation for making the film; we wanted to tell a story… developing the technology that was the only way this story could be told.” – David Heyman (Producer)
The fact that the sheer complexity of Gravity from a filmmaking standpoint is never present on the surface and our attention is constantly drawn to the empowering and cathartic struggle of the characters onscreen is the film’s greatest achievement. Gravity may well take a great step for visual effects, but it also makes a giant, extraordinary, and often breath-taking leap for storytelling.