One of the earliest blockbusters — if a 50-second silent film released in 1896 could be said to bust any blocks — consisted of little more than a train pulling into a station. Urban legend has it audiences ran from the oncoming train, overcome by the realism of the moving image. Before character, before story, before auteurs and special effects, cinema was about the experience, about seeing things you’d never seen before, or at least not in that fashion. In that sense, Gravity is one of the purest pieces of cinema to come along in years, a completely immersive experience breath-taking in its scope. But this is no mere train pulling into the station. Despite its setting of an environment completely inhospitable to mankind, the core of the film is its humanity.
This is evident from the very beginning of the film. We see Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) happily drifting about in a jetpack. At the same time, Dr. Ryan Stone nervously works on a repair to the Hubble telescope, desperately clinging both to the task at hand and the shuttle’s robotic arm. They’re two halves of one whole, acceptance and denial, release and retention, freedom and captivity. With the planet spinning below as a backdrop, it’s hard not to see Kowalski as the future of mankind, unbound, at home in the heavens, yet still bringing pieces of home with him in the form of tall tales from his past. And Stone remains earthbound, by her constant attempts to reestablish the Hubble’s connection with Earth and by her desire to finish the mission and get home.
But over the course of the film, Stone evolves, taking on Kowalski’s acceptance as her own. She nearly takes it too far, accepting not just the reality of her situation but giving in to its inevitability. Eventually though, and thanks in no small part to her memories of Kowalski, she understands acceptance does not equal acquiescence, that we have to do all we can, and hope that it proves to be enough. If not, at least we fought the good fight.
And then comes the visionary, almost elegiac finale of the film, where Alfonso Cuarón transforms Gravity from a gripping drama into something downright spiritual. Stone descends in flame like a phoenix, a sort of purging of her past life. What follows is nothing less than her rebirth and, by association, the rebirth of mankind. She struggles from the depths of a lake, takes her first hurried breaths of Earth’s oxygen, makes her way to shore, drags herself to all fours, then finally, proudly, defiantly, stands upright, taking unsteady steps into a primordial landscape. The world is new to her, just as it must have seemed to those creatures that millions of years ago hauled themselves onto land as she did. It’s an inverse of the Star Child from 2001: A Space Odyssey, looking down instead of up, the implication being that our future may be among the stars, but we have to change down here before we can truly embrace that future up there.
Gravity is high concept done right. Beyond its impeccable presentation — as much as I chafe against 3D and IMAX, the film almost demands to be seen in that format, and Cuarón uses it masterfully — it manages to find resonance amid the spectacle, and not with clichéd homilies and heavy-handed moments. It has its harrowing set pieces, but takes time out for quieter beats, like Kowalski floating angelic above the Earth marveling at its beauty, or Stone sharing a fleeting moment where proximity and language mean less than human contact. Elegant in its simplicity, stirring in its humanity, transporting in its execution, Gravity is easily one of the best films of the year. I left the theater feeling more hopeful about this teeming blue ball we inhabit than I have in a long time. Funny how soaring above it can do that to you.