Tech and rebirth (spoiler notice)
Underneath the veneer of a – frankly – shockingly entertaining astronaut thrill ride, some interesting themes simmer. Amidst exploding ISS modules, depleting oxygen tanks and lethal debris swarming in orbit, Gravity uses its tech-heavy setting as a means of exploring the beauty of Earth and the hidden strengths within our minds. At the peak of our current technological achievements, Alfonso Cuarón finds the rebirth of a human.
Where else but in science fiction could such lofty premises be dealt with? One of the many smart things about this film is that it isn't heavy-handed in its execution. It surprises and delights whenever it delves deep into poetry, right after another harrowing flight through zero gravity and choking leads.
Its two main characters, medical engineer Ryan Stone and mission commander Matt Kowalski, are opposites for a reason. Matt (played by George Clooney) is a nearly retired astronaut, and has reached such a mastery of his deadly surroundings that he's able to play fast and loose with it. His cowboy antics aren't based on any false confidence. Ryan (Sandra Bullock) is a space first-timer and deeply uncomfortable in her suit. This is an easy juxtaposition, but it's only one of the few points where Gravity asks you to go along with movie logic. Most of the time, storytelling shortcuts are avoided to grand effect.
To have such a relaxed master as Matt steering the action would rid the film of any tension, so after the first act he's set adrift in space and not seen again (barring his appearance in an oxygen-deprived illusion that sent many a heart in the audience audibly aflutter). So in control is Matt, that when he decouples himself from his tether to save Ryan, his only thought is towards soothing her distress. He goes out not with a spectacular one-liner, but a soft touch. The ramifications are for the audience themselves to feel out. It's not the only time Gravity thinks highly of its viewers: the catalyzing catastrophe (a Russian satellite exploding) is brought with zero false drama and happens entirely off-screen. When we learn of the impending doom, it's through a dispassionate report by Houston.
With no one, not even the movie itself, around her freaking out at these events, Ryan's emotional state is enlarged and made all the more important. She's the only one that we can identify with, and the bond between her and the viewer is strong for it. It's great to witness her growth from defeatist, depressed mother-who-lost-her-child to a strong woman intent on accepting tragedy and making the best out of life. The film supports this arc with plenty of beautiful imagery. Upon first entering the ISS, Ryan peels off her space suit and drifts as a fetus through the tubular module. She dies and is reborn in the Soyuz capsule, where she accepts her mortality. Upon crash-landing in a terrestrial lake at the end, she emerges from the water, crawling on all fours like an ancestor from the primordial soup. These images are no coincidence. They echo the themes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, but less concerned with bombast and grandeur, and more with intimacy and warmth.
Gravity works both as a physical adventure and a metaphysical journey. The two parts are harmoniously tied together. Visually, it packs a punch with a long, uninterrupted opening and stunning shots from first person perspective. Booming audio drops away when hatches are opened and closed – as if to emphasize the strange properties of space.
This is a dizzying masterpiece, thrilling from beginning to end, elegantly crafted, utterly convincing, with a beating heart of human symbolism.