“As the camera constantly spins with the characters, as one might get motion sickness, we may realize that the film really is about nothing. And it does not matter.”
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity takes hold of you from the very first moment and doesn’t let go during ninety-one minutes that feel like an eternity. Its beauty comes from the outstanding cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki, the same guy who worked with Cuarón on Children of Men), but more importantly, it comes from elongating and compressing time and space. The whirlwind beginning (repairs on a space station go awry, and doctor-turned-astronaut Ryan Stone — Sandra Bullock — and lieutenant Matt Kowalski — George Clooney — are left spinning in space after being hit by a storm of debris coming from a Russian satellite) is shot in a seemingly interminable continuous shot.1 The long take, a favorite of André Bazin’s theories on cinema, is generally used to lengthen the impression of time passage, to slow things down considerably, and to allow the spectators to take in the mise-en-scène. Since the characters of the film are already in (infinite) space, the opening shot works as a textual parallel that enhances the suggestion of infinity.
Furthermore, Lubezki’s camera moves closer and farther from the action and from the characters, creating a sort of cinematic weaving that lengthens and reduces space, too. We move from long shots of the disaster on the space station to close-ups of the distressed astronauts. The camera focuses on Stone in particular, and in one telling moment, it actually penetrates (again with no visual break in the film) beyond the visor of her helmet. So the camera also moves inside and outside of personal space, as well as operating several changes of point of view. Aligning the eye of the camera with Dr. Stone’s perspective allows for a very intimate moment of identification with the character, one that carries fear and anxiety. Being stuck in the helmet with Stone also generates an intense feeling of claustrophobia, and inevitably one thinks about suffocating in the vastness of space, about being buried alive in the astronaut suit. The game of distance played by and with the camera is striking when Stone begins to realize the gravity of her situation (i.e., that she is dying), and starts crying. The lack of (the other kind of) gravity carries her tears up and away from her face. One of the tears heads toward the audience (and in 3D the illusion of proximity is further emphasized), and then the director opts for a typical rack-focus effect. The visual focus shifts from Stone’s face to the tear in which we can see a tiny reflection of the character (there are many other reflections — like the title of the film, its main character is defined by duality). Without moving this time, the camera still demarcates space through this simple effect. Moreover, the drop of water suggests that life is fleeing Stone’s body, as she is slowly dying.
In spite of death continually lurking, the film employs countless references to life in the form of motherhood. This is a motif that becomes important from the moment the audience finds out about Stone’s tragedy — that she had lost her four-year-old daughter. Analogies to the womb are prevalent: from the cord that connects the two astronauts, to Matt’s mention of “mother Earth,” to Stone’s (re)-entrance into the Russian station, which is a sort of birth in reverse. The mother2 becomes the child. She takes the suit off and slowly begins to swivel as she contorts her body into a fetal position. In the background, the ever-present connecting cord, the umbilical cord, reminds us that the metaphor is perhaps overstated. And it doesn’t stop there. The baby cries that Stone hears on a random frequency aurally suggest motherhood, and maybe even keep her alive. Finally, and surprisingly even more obvious than before, Stone’s descent unto Earth in a roundish cubicle that is flooded with water reminds us of a mother’s womb (again in reverse since water breaks in). Stone escapes the death grip of this makeshift womb, symbolically frees herself from the guilt of having lost a child, and emerges from underwater. Once ashore, she hesitates and then slowly, awkwardly, and dramatically3 lifts herself up. The camera does not follow her; instead, it focuses on the shaky feet — the unsure first steps of a newborn in the mud, on earth.
In fact, the family name of the main character echoes earth — stone — and even when coupled with the given name (masculine as it may be), it still rings earthy: Ryan Stone (rhinestone). This cannot be a coincidence: there is an Aurora Borealis type of rhinestone, and at one point Stone levitates clearly over the North Pole because the actual Aurora Borealis can be seen in the background. Stone’s connection to earth seems utterly unbreakable, even in space. What brings her down, literally and symbolically, is a heavy dose of religious discourse (not unlike the one running through Cuarón’s Children of Men). How else could one interpret the character’s repentance when she realizes death is near? She speaks to the voice on the radio, which is a quintessential disembodied and godly voice that she cannot understand, naturally. Stone admits to have never prayed, and yet requests a prayer in her name. Couple her demand with the inserts of the Russian Orthodox icon,4 of Buddha, and possibly even with her mate’s name, Kowalski, which is most likely Polish Catholic, and the end result is absolution. She gets a second chance.
So does it really matter in the end? Because ultimately nothing appears to matter in space, except perhaps breathing. And nothing really matters in this film either, except perhaps breathing. However, the film does not let you. As the camera constantly spins with the characters, as one might get motion sickness, we may realize that the film really is about nothing. And it does not matter. Stone helps us (the ones craving an actual narrative) toward the end when she yells at Houston in the middle of what was going to be a trivial story about her life: “Never mind the story, never mind the story.” It was worth repeating and underlining that indeed, the story does not matter. What matters is the trip. As far as movies are concerned, this one is a stellar effort.
- I say “seemingly” because it is possible there were cuts made à la Hitchcock in Rope, in which the master of suspense used the back of characters to mask the break between cuts. [↩]
- We cannot ignore the connections to James Cameron’s Aliens (whom Cuarón thanks in the credits), most obvious in the physical similarities (such as the masculine short hair) between Stone and Ellen Ripley, the Alien-mother. [↩]
- Yes, it is all quite heavy-handed, much like a couple of details in the mise-en-scène that seem gratuitously stereotypical: the floating chess pieces in the Russian station (in 1972, Reykjavik, the World Chess championship pitted American wunderkind Bobby Fisher against Soviet grand-master Boris Spassky; the contest was considered by many to be a doubling, a reenactment of the cold war on the chessboard), and even more egregious, the table tennis paddle in the Chinese station (although, beyond the reductive “the Chinese are good at Ping-Pong,” one could make the claim that Stone ping pongs her way around space). [↩]
- It is a picture of Saint Christopher carrying baby Jesus on his shoulder. [↩]