Alfonso Cuarón’s new film about space lets you in, and gets into your head
Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata
There is a scene in Gravity when Sandra Bullock cries and her tears float in 3D until one stops right near your face and Alfonso Cuarón decides that this is the time to put Bullock out of focus and give you a minute to realize that the tear is floating weightless, somewhere in outer space and is from a creature quite alien to sci-fi movies — a woman.
It’s not that we haven’t seen women in space before. There was Sigourney Weaver’s steely turn as Ripley in Aliens, but then her character was so John Wayne and Stallone that you could see that she was one of the boys, if not better. In the rest of the movies of the genre, women are, let’s be honest, just a vehicle of male fantasy. Sexy aliens, sexy scientists, sexy Stormship troopers -— we’ve seen them all from Barberella to Princess Leia. They might be feisty, they might be intelligent, but it helps when they are talking to you in skintight catsuits or short leather miniskirts.
Bullock’s Dr Ryan Stone is definitely different because, in the first half of Gravity, she does not appear to be male or female, just an astronaut — quite a feat in itself when the movie is set in outer space and you have just two characters to hold your attention. In a spectacular 17-minute take, Dr Stone is just a bulky figure in space, a voice in a spacesuit, or just loud, panicked breathing, keeping time to the depleting oxygen level, while adrift in space. In fact, most of the talking is done by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), veteran astronaut and Captain America rolled into one. He guides her through space, helps her focus, while keeping an eye out for that apocalyptic disaster that’s heading their way, just out of our 3D vision. Even as space debris, exploding space shuttles and tethered astronauts occupy our visual space, we come to realize that the story that Cuarón is really trying to tell is not of space, but a human one — a tale of survival, a tale of resilience, a tale of one man (in this case, one woman) against a million odds of survival. He opens a veritable Pandora’s box of disasters to make his point, but nothing makes you root for our heroine more than when we see her finally divested of her cocoon — the spacesuit, curled up like a foetus, a picture of rebirth and, finally, a woman.
It’s these scenes of complete balletic grace, of sheer poetry, that make you believe in the almost implausible survival story, that make Bullock an androgynous spirit of courage, that makes you part of the weightless eternity of space, trying to float, oh, so desperately, back home.
Cuarón knows the magic of space, cinema and technology, and he weaves all three to create an engrossing tale, even if the script reads more like it was written for Bruce Willis’ Die hard franchise. Clooney is saddled with the worst of these, which he utters with good cheer in an almost likeable caricature of the space cowboy.
Bullock’s one-liners include gems like “I hate space” and “It’s time to go home”and you can almost hear yet another sci-fi movie icon whisper, “I’ll be back”. But, thankfully, space is also about silence, and Cuarón utilizes this to good effect, weighing its complete absence of sound with tension, frustration, fright, and liberating it with little moments of freedom that help us gather our collective
He uses the 3D technology not to dazzle but to work its way up, rung by rung, into our senses, till we are pulled into this beautiful, dangerous world where you can feel the claustrophobia settle in, your heart beat a little faster, and instinctively move away from the silvery starship debris heading towards you like a bullet.
Space is still the final frontier for filmmakers — it’s that one last theatre of fantasy, a place where anything can happen — adventure, aliens, even apocalypse. Alfonso Cuarón manages to embed this unreal, imaginary world into our world of imagination. Despite a wafer-thin script and Hollywood flourishes, he still manages to give us an adventure story, the way we experienced them when we were children — by letting us traipse into the dark unknown, experience the shivery terror of the night, and make us believe in heroes — even if they are women.