I would like to say something that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere about the movie GRAVITY, directed by Alfonso Cuarón.
No spoilers. Almost everything mentioned below happens in the first 15 minutes or so.
Apart from utmost praise of the visuals, I’ve seen a lot of bad-press and dismissive reviews of “the plot”. But (and I know I’m not alone) this is precisely what I’d like to pick-over… the plot and what it does is amazing. The rest is a distraction. A beautiful distraction, but a distraction.
First shot of the film puts us in awe. There is no doubt that all of us are minuscule ants in an amazing, wonderful, beautiful, yet daunting world.
Sandra Bullock (Dr. Stone) is in space with two others. She is depressed. She is anxiety-ridden. She is worn out, burnt-up and dead inside. Possibly the only thing pushing her on is her career, but her breakdown is inevitable and it’s coming up fast.
From minute-one she is not feeling well. It is clear she is already suffering:
“Dr. Stone, Houston, medical is concerned about your ECG reading.”
“I’m fine Houston.”
“Well medical doesn’t agree. Are you feeling nauseous?”
She then (clearly out of breath) proceeds to change the subject, talking shop. Her fear of discovery-leading-to-the-abortion-of-the-mission is stressing her out further.
…But we’ll get back to that in a little while…
I’ve read a lot of criticism of George Clooney in this film: “He plays George Clooney”/ “he plays Buzz Lightyear”/ “he’s a comic-book too-smooth caricature without a hair out of place in the worst situation possible, making him and the movie unbelievable”.
Well I disagree and here’s why –
How does one deal with anxiety / nausea/ depression/ feelings of inadequacy?
Whilst in that moment, should we
a) Concentrate on these ‘bad thoughts’, wonder why we are having them?
b) Try to work through the processes and steps that lead us to this nasty negative place?
d) Try to put a plan in place that will stop this happening in future?
e) Ignore it/ free our mind/ then when free, proceed with dealing with what’s in front of us?
To little-ole-me at least, the correct answer is and only ever can be (e).
Maybe there’s a little more to it than that (or not), but that’s the crux of it.
Enter Captain George.
From the beginning, Clooney is clowning around, making small-talk, jokes, belittling the seriousness of the mission.
“Houston I have a bad feeling about this mission”
“OK, let me tell you a story… It was ’96 –I’d been up here for 42 days –every time I passed over Texas…”
…And now we’re no longer worried about the mission or the million things that can (and will) go wrong, but instead listening to George’s calm voice as we (Dr. Stone) are free to mechanically work through the job without over-thinking the overwhelming
problems at hand or running through our own fears and doubts over and over.
Next Houston asks “Sharif” for a time estimate.
“Nearly there,” he tells Houston.
“Could you be a little bit more specific? Indeterminate
estimates make Houston anxious”.
“No no no Houston –don’t be anxious. Anxiety is not good for the heart.”
So before anything has even happened, in the first couple of minutes while the camera is still in the process of zooming in on the initial location, we’ve had talk of medical, ECG (which monitors heart, nothing to do with nausea to my knowledge), nausea, anxious, anxious, anxiety… “not good for the heart”.
This is a movie about Anxiety. The Gravity of Anxiety, if you will.
Soon an issue arises and Houston asks Dr. Stone how long it’lll take to fix?
“One hour”, replies Dr. Stone. Clearly she doesn’t suffer
from Sharif’s Indeterminate Estimate Syndrome, nor obviously, his lack of anxiety.
The first sign of real danger comes when Houston says:
“NORAD reports a Russian sattellite has incurred a missile strike.”
Captain George’s eyes dart to Dr. Stone to check her reaction.
She takes a little longer to consider what she has heard before looking to George to gauge how to react.
Seeing him smiling calmly back is reassurance enough to keep her working methodically.
Now Houston continues the sentence and Captain George immediately spots the danger.
He checks his less-experienced co-worker who is still floating merrily on his wave of calmness.
Now she pauses and asks (stutters) …
“should we should we be worried?”
No, let’s let the boys down there worry for us.
Isn’t this ‘Certainty’ exactly what we all crave? Dr. Stone (‘we’) is already on the verge of panic but put it down to experience or writers’ prerogative, Captain George knows nothing is achieved through panic –smile and if you can’t control it, continue doing what can be done.
It’s not that he did something to avoid catastrophe, but even if he rushed everyone back to the ship at this point it would make zero difference. In fact it would almost certainly whip everyone into so much of a frenzy they would almost certainly die during or soon after the first debris-strike.
Still, he’s concerned enough now to gently enquire, without raising suspicions, how much training she has actually had.
Soon the debris hits and Dr. Stone is sent reeling. She is out of control. Too much is happening for her to focus on any one thing. She is thinking of everything, unable to concentrate on anything that might possibly save her.
Kowalski’s single-minded order is all that is there to save her. “You must detach!”
“What? Are you mad!? How can I possibly detach myself!? I’ll die if I do -I can’t do it anyway!” we would all scream back.
There is just too much going on. Too much to concentrate on. Too much to worry about!
Yet that one single command is the key: Detach.
Whether it’s in space, at work, in the kitchen… when everything is too much to take in… first of all detach. Worry about all that other stuff some other time.
Every fibre of your being is screaming at you “NO! DON’T LET GO!”
You find it impossible to concentrate enough to do the opposite to how you are seemingly programmed to react.
…Finally she detaches and is alone. Still reeling, but now like a bunny in the headlamps, fear has her frozen.
Now her body is running on instinct. It takes her a long time, but finally she is forced to breathe again.
To do nothing -but breathe…
Now, through the magic of (this new) cinema, we are taken seamlessly through her spacesuit visor to see the world from her point-of-view
to witness the world as she sees it –reeling…
Still out of control, but calm enough now to function, she gets her bearing and reaches out for the first time as if to say OK, I’m ready now –I’m completely in your hands.
This is the point where she regains control of her senses.
She is powerless, she knows it, but she is no longer panicking.
Now the camera exits her visor again so the story can
…OK, I’m sure none of us wants me to continue giving a blow-by-blow account of how I see this movie, so I’ll stop that now.
On Clooney though -I’d just like to say this: his character is a caricature –he plays the perfect human being who is able to cope with this situation without once saying or doing the wrong thing. But that’s not a flaw with the actor or the plot -it is the whole point.
This is exactly how to handle such a situation/ such a person –in a perfect world.
Or out of it.
Clooney’s “caricature” is not a distracting misstep to an
otherwise impressive movie –he is there to demonstrate how to handle this situation perfectly.
Later in the movie he is even more perfect, but I’m sure you’ve considered for yourself why this is, if you’ve seen it –or you will come up with your own explanation when you do.
Another “misstep” I’ve seen levelled at this film is
complaints of “B-movie plot insertions” –trying to quickly get us to root for the protagonists by crow-barring in some hokey past trauma that serves no purpose other than to make us feel sorry for them.
Usually the guy who tells us the biggest sob story is the one who gets killed first.
In Gravity, Dr. Stone tells us “I had a daughter…”
In this movie, such hokey dialogue is most certainly not emotion-time-filler-in-between-disasters.
It itself is the point of the movie. …Well, yes, it is shorthand for “whatever trauma you’re having yourself”, but what do you expect from a 90-minute action movie?
Anyway… this movie is inside out.
It has also been said that the “3D and space f/x” mask a vacuous, too-simple plot. But no, I strongly disagree -the 3D and space f/x distracts us from the real purpose of this film. It doesn’t ram it down our throats like some more-commercially-minded or sincere-yet possibly-misguided filmmakers might do.
Instead it dazzles and blind-sides and impresses us so much with its visuals that we may not take onboard –or at least don’t mind taking onboard if we do- what it is saying.
It tells us a difficult story without mentioning it at all.
After all, who would go to see GRAVITY outside the arthouse-set if this was known as “A Movie about Depression and Anxiety”?
Gravity is not a movie about Space. That’s why it’s called Gravity when there is Zero-G in it.