October 18, 2013

Mission [Not] Abort

A review of Gravity, a film directed by Alfonso Cuarón. (Note: contains spoilers. Just go see it.)

In this film technology and acting merge in probably the most effective blend since Avatar, though with a simpler story line and a more profound message. The plot can be summed up in a single headline: woman survives accident in space; but that would not do justice to the richness of the portrayal and the tension in the story-telling. For the technology not only portrays what an accident in weightless orbit would look like, but allows the director a God’s eye POV: a camera that can move from outside the swelling scene to a view from within the astronaut’s helmet and — one presumes — her eyes. In an almost dreamlike transition the audience moves from empathy to identity, from beholding to becoming. This has a powerful effect in drawing the viewer literally into the story.

This is a well-told story not just about survival, but about the choice to survive rather than to go gently into that dear night of death, a transition painfully easy in the vacuum of space, with the supply of oxygen expendable and the hermetically sealed refuges very few and very far between. The principle character — indeed for much of the film the only character, superbly played by Sandra Bullock — is presented with challenge after challenge, and ultimately with ghostly encouragement to surmount all challenges to come to a kind of rebirth. The message is not simply survival, but affirmation of life.

It might seem odd, indeed a massive misreading, to see a right-to-life message in a movie associated with a well-known liberal such as George Clooney (who also gives a fine, though rather chivalrously downplayed performance). However, one image in the film strongly suggested such a reading to me. After reaching the refuge of a sealed capsule, Bullock slowly removes her spacesuit and floats in fetal position surrounded by the umbilical of some piece of hardware. The image is unmistakable, and if unintentional more of a coincidence than I can imagine for a director so well attuned to the visual, and whose crew had to labor over every frame to produce the perfect simulacrum of life and death in space.

However, it is also possible to see this as a pro-choice message, as Bullock makes the choice to live — this is not just about life, but the choice for life. True, it is the ghostly reminder of some half-remembered aspect of the technology that presents this scientist-out-of-her-depth with the opportunity to choose life rather than death. But she makes that choice, she takes that slender chance, as fragile as a guy-line, as thin as the skin of a space suit, as hit or miss as shooting oneself out of a cannon at a net some hundreds of miles away.

Life is, after all, worth living, and this film supports that hope, and places that challenge: which would you choose. Bullock chooses life, and lives.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

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