Gravity: Some Quick Thoughts

[Some quick thoughts on Cuaron’s Gravity. Would have liked to write a detailed piece on the film, but thanks to the Mumbai Film Festival, I have both watched the film really late and I am left with absolutely no time at all to write a lengthy piece.]

Gravity manages to achieve a rare feat in its first ten minutes: it humanizes space. Its vast emptiness stares at us at all times, at times like a confidante, at times like an enemy. It’s scary to imagine the extent of someone’s loneliness; outer space, ironically, in that case is the nadir. Cuaron uses this metaphor beautifully throughout the entire film. I couldn’t help remembering the following iconic lines of Carl Segan few minutes into the movie:

Carl Segan

I must confess am not a big fan of this quote, mainly because it scares me. It tells me, and I don’t know what Segan’s intentions were, that no matter what we do, or what we don’t it essentially doesn’t amount to anything. Because what we are if not specks? This interestingly is very similar to what Kowalski (Clooney) tells Ryan (Sandra Bullock) later in the film (we get to know later that she’s merely hallucinating): “What’s the point of it, then?” Of all the questions one must encounter and answer, I find this one to be the most unsettling. Also, because it’s about how you see the world. If your worldview is intimate and micro, consisting of people and their and your own self-contained world, you might as well believe in the empowerment of ideas and people. But, then it’s also because we haven’t seen the outer space. Whenever I have read that quote of Segan’s I could see where he was coming from, but still not see it. Gravity helped me see that point of view. I mean, how can you not be philosophical and question the ludicrous ‘enormity’ of everything after you have experienced the indefinite? Beyond the obvious technical wizardry, the first few minutes of Gravity sparkle  because they are refreshingly reflective, calm, and yet can make you feel small and uncomfortable. Two astronauts floating endlessly devoid of any imprint they can hope to leave.

As the different plot points in the film unravel, we begin understanding what Cuaron is trying to get at. Consider Ryan, she’s not very different from what she’s on earth than she’s in space: endlessly floating, or going through the motions. Working 18  hours a day, going back to her home driving, insensate, not even bothered about the environment she inhabits. “I don’t care what song the radio plays, as long as it’s any song.” The numbness of people like her, and her own very numbness is discomfiting. What’s the difference when she’s in outer space? There that numbness has a meaning, it acquires a form of its own. You know when you enter a room that’s so silent that it begins communicating with you? Ditto for Ryan. It’s only because of the situation she finds herself in right now can she really understand the ennui she experiences day in, day out in the real world. Movies that bowl me over, and am sure it’s true for a lot of people as well, essentially do either one of the things– they either make me feel a little alive or they make me feel a little worthless. In the first few minutes of Gravity, I wasn’t alive, as we formally like to see and interpret the word, but it spoke to me beyond the banality of how we see and understand the outer space. We have all been repeatedly told that it’s vast, hollow, scary, but exactly howGravity answered that for me. 

The only thing that taints its gorgeous, contemplative first few minutes is Clooney. His performance and smart-alecky lines just didn’t ring true to me. Sure, Cuaron might not have wanted too much of a same thing happening too early on in the movie, but Kowalski’s practised lines, as funny and charming they were because, well, he is…Clooney, had Hollywood written all over them. I mean, come on, you don’t expect a wise repartee from you colleague whose oxygen level is down to just 2%? You can gloss over the character’s over-the-top coolth once or twice, but here Kowalski sounds unreal every second line. Here, he could have benefitted a lot with a tinge of vulnerability, especially given the circumstance he finds himself in.

However, I loved how the film seamlessly switched between delineating significance and insignificance. There’s a lovely scene somewhere around the middle of the film, where Ryan is struggling to get her capsule to work, she’s seething with anger and screaming in agony. The heightened background score showcases her conundrum perfectly, but suddenly, the camera quickly tracks back and is out of the capsule, and we can’t hear her at all. She has been rendered identity-less in a matter of few seconds, has become just another element of the space. When we are in our own world, just like that capsule of Ryan’s, everything is so amped up, everything is so loud. But step aside a few steps and sink into someone else’s point of view, the same problems seem insignificant. It’s gobsmacking how easily Cuaron has managed to co-relate the lives on earth and beyond it.

I absolutely loved Gravity for bits like these. (There were a few others as well, but since I had no intention of writing on the movie I didn’t jot them down and have forgotten them by now.) However, what troubled me about the film was what it was trying to say in an overarching fashion. It became incredibly trite and tepid towards the end. I would have rather much preferred the film to be driven through its profound vignettes and mediative silence. The moment you concretize something it loses some of its value. ‘This is what you live for’, Cuaron seems to suggest as we look at the world from Ryan’s point of view in the film’s final shot. Well, nothing glaringly wrong about it but it’s rather dull because it strives for a meaning. On the other hand, the sadness of Kowalski slowly floating away to a silent, unwitnessed death was much more poignant and meaningful in comparison.

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