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Gravity’ Reaches New Heights

Matthew Niendorf | Monday, October 7, 2013

WARNING: This article contains serious spoilers.

When I finished watching “Gravity” Thursday night the first thing I said to my friend was “I wish Sandra Bullock’s character had died.” I generally loathe Bullock, expressing that her roles are overrated and overwrought with melodramatics. However, it was not my well-seated prejudice against Ms. Congeniality’s acting style that made me wish for her demise. In fact, Bullock’s performance as Dr. Ryan Stone was essential to director Alfonso Cuarón’s vision, one of both existential themes, but also pure suspense. 

Indeed, I think it would be a serious mistake not to consider Bullock’s stellar role as a mentally wayward – perhaps even unstable – doctor-engineer-astronaut as the forerunner for Best Actress in this upcoming Oscars. Consider me a Bull-iever. No, I wanted Bullock’s character dead for personal reasons – a sometimes pessimistic worldview –  that I am now ready to alter (a bit).

“Gravity” is the most recent work of the Mexico City-born Cuarón, his seventh feature-length film. Cuarón’s films have included 2001’s devastating “Y Tu Mamá También,” 2006’s dystopian “Children of Men,” and perhaps most familiarly, “The Prisoner of Azkaban.” Already heralded as one of the best living directors, “Gravity” will only further his deserved reputation as cinematic master. 

“Gravity” is the story of two astronauts – well, there’s a third one, too, but he is quite literally faceless and features only briefly – who are the victims of Kessler syndrome, a very real and pressing possibility wherein the space debris in Earth’s low orbit – of which there is plenty –  could be set into high velocity by a chain reaction. This cascading effect would render new low orbit satellites impossible and could potentially destroy any existing orbiters. Dr. Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) find themselves in a Kessler syndrome event while making repairs on their space shuttle; a debris field rips through their shuttle and they are sent flying into space with limited mobility and oxygen.

Over the next hour and ten minutes of the film we watch Stone and Kowalski try to survive, most of the focus being on Bullock’s character. On the surface what the viewer gets is a gripping story of overcoming insurmountable difficulties, a life or death film. The cinematics alone make “Gravity” worth going to as Bullock and Clooney fly over a changing background of earth. 

In stunning realism, especially in the well-done 3D, we see the lights of the Nile Delta, the elegant curvature of Central America, and the Aurora Borealis. The action scenes are equally incredible; the shattering of space stations never looked so beautiful. But if you’re looking to see a film that presents the human problem of self-worth, well, you are in luck as Cuarón delivers it poetically. Importantly, I don’t think Cuarón answers what the film asks. Namely, the question what is the value of a human life, of my life? 

My friend and I argued over this question well into the night when we arrived home for the movie. He agreed with me that Bullock being killed at the end would have made for an interesting ending, but added that he didn’t think it to be a necessary one. I argued that Dr. Stone’s survival was too clean to me, and moreover that the film’s ending neglected what interested me: what happens after survival? It is well-established by the middle of the film that Stone has no one on Earth, and for a moment, she considers death a better option than a return to loneliness. But Stone chooses to live. 

I think this ambiguity of fate is Cuarón goal. Barring suicide, which Stone almost commits, humans cannot know when their lives will conclude. Humans cannot predict whether their lives will take a positive or negative turn. It is the hope or the chance, delusional though the thought may be, that there are better experiences to be had that makes our survival worth sustaining. The manacle of neutral existence is one that may be worth breaking, even if the person comes crashing down for the worse. “Gravity,” in only ninety minutes, states this profoundly. 


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The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.