The Best Movie I’ve Seen in Years: “Gravity”

Gravity, written, directed and produced by Alfonso Cuarón, and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is the best movie I have seen in years.

Frankly, I didn’t think movies could be any good at all anymore until I saw this movie. Everything is either Hollywood garbage, or it’s art-house garbage.

Almost everything is perfect in Gravity. The rhythm, the timing, the special effects, the acting, the music (especially), the ending. All of it. The writing is fantastic if you ask me; the actual lines that the characters get are less than perfect. There are certain moments where you sense that the writing could have been just a hair tighter or more trenchant. But the whole point of writing is to tell a great story, not to show off how witty the script writer is. I’d rather have a fantastic story full of clunkers than 90 minutes of witty repartée that goes nowhere. Gravity is a great story, and there are some quite witty and sweet lines along the way. Good writing overall.

If you have only seen the trailers and advertisements for this movie, you might not understand what it’s about other than it’s about some astronauts in space that have a disaster. And that is indeed what Gravity is about. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts on a mission to improve the Hubble Space Telescope, and when a Russian missile launch inadvertantly causes some satellites to rip apart and scatter at low Earth orbit, the entire mission goes haywire.

So, yes, that’s what it is “about”. The satellite debris hurtles into the space ship of the protagonists at high velocity and everything goes crazy. Bullock (“Mission Specialist Ryan Stone”) and Clooney (“Mission Commander Matthew Kowalski”) go through a series of increasingly tense moments as they attempt to regain control of the disaster. Early on Bullock gets blasted off the main structure of the telescope and spaceship and is hurtling all alone, head over heels between the earth, the sun and the stars.

So that’s the basic plot: things get messed up, and the astronauts have to find their way back to Earth somehow, even though all their equipment and landing modules are damaged.

The action scenes are incredible. Truly unnerving and almost uncomfortably tense to watch. As soon as I saw this movie, I thought, how come no one has made a movie like this before? The idea is so simple, and so exciting. The angular momentum of the space station, the astronauts, and the satellite debris makes for more action than you could ever want. It takes your breath away. No violence, no sex, no “battle scenes.” You see one rather clean (though disturbing) shot of a fellow astronaut who got pierced in the head with a piece of satellite debris, and you see one floating, blue-faced body of another astronaut who died when the debris ripped apart the space ship and let all the air out. Beyond that, the “violence” is all implied, or happens only to space station components. Still, it’s incredibly exciting.

People used to tell stories like this one all the time. Stories of survival. Usually they took place on earth, and the “hostile environment” was a foreign land, a tropical jungle, or the wide expanse of oceans. The idea of Gravity is very old, and very simple. People go into a place hostile to life, encounter disaster despite their best preparations, and are forced to improvise to make it back to “civilization.”

Space movies, more than any other genre, highlight the true drama of this genre. I’m thinking of movies like Contact and Apollo 13 right now. The central thematic tension is the difference between the warm embrace of Mother Earth and the cold indifference of alien space. People in this type of movie want to explore the universe, but they also want to be warm and safe at home. A natural tendency (at least for some types of humanity).

What’s great about Gravity is that it is unabashed about it’s themes, and indeed very nearly explicitly states them. Kowalski (Clooney) loves being in space, and he’s portrayed as a veteran astronaut, almost a rock star among astronauts. Stone (Bullock) is portrayed as the smartest cookie in her field, tough enough to take astronaut training and go into space just to ensure her genius telescope modifications go into effect. Beyond that, the story is about human beings trying to be human beings.

[By the way, I don’t feel the decision to make Stone (Bullock) a woman was a “grrl power” thing. The movie is much more emotionally powerful with Stone as a woman than it would have been with Stone as a man. The writers do a little bit of deft hinting in the dialogue to explain why Bullock is up there at all, then they get on with the story. There’s no you-go-girl stuff. They spend a grand total of 15 seconds of dialogue explaining why she’s there, and then the satellite debris enters… on with the story! As it should be.]

So I still haven’t gotten to why this movie is so good.

At the end of the move [SPOILER ALERT], Sandra Bullock decides to overcome all odds despite her own fatalism. She’s about to give up on life, to give up on Earth essentially, and the “angel” of Clooney/Kowalski appears to her to convince her to keep going. It’s ambiguous as to whether it’s her dream, her conscience, her hallucination, or an angel of some kind. But it amounts to the same thing. Just when things get their most awful, Sandra gets a message from somewhere that she needs to keep going, no matter how sad and lonely she is.

What follows is an extended scene that in lesser hands could have been supremely cheesey. But Cuarón in Gravity gets it just right. High emotion, eternal themes, glorious human emotion. I cried.

Bullock makes it back to Earth [SPOILER ALERT!] at the end. As her capsule breaks up and the heat shields turn white hot and her computer equipment sparks and melts, the music builds and builds. Her capsule lands in some shallow water, after much drama. Then as the water rushes in through the hatch of the capsule she has to fight and struggle to get out of the capsule, tear her space suit off, and swim like the frogs around her up to the surface.

When she gets to the surface, she catches her breath and turns on her back in the shallow weedy water, and there are flies buzzing about her as the remnants of the space station streak across the sky like bright meteors.

That inclusion of flies is key. As soon as Bullock returns to Earth, where she’s been trying to get all along, we get flies. A reminder that Earth can be ugly and imperfect. And still, the next thing she does is struggle her way to the shore, stand up with difficulty with her zero-gravity-induced muscle weakness, laughs and clutches some sand in her hand, and as the music swells to a crescendo, stands up and takes a few steps.

Earlier in the movie, when she is almost out of oxygen in her space suit and finally after much drama makes it into the airlock, she sheds her spacesuit, sucks in some air, and curls up into a fetal position, rotating in zero gravity beautifully.

It’s a key moment, because the scene of her struggling out of her watery capsule onto land is clearly a metaphor for birth. When she clutches the wet sand and laughs to herself at the end, it’s one of the best affirmations of life I’ve ever seen in cinema.

Because 98% of the movie takes place in space, and because the depictions of space are so honest, beautiful, and terrifying, when the main character gets back to Earth it’s genuinely wonderful. The basic message is: life itself here on Earth is a miracle.

I think it was Chesterton who first articulated to me the idea that it’s not the astonishing anomalies of life that are truly interesting, but that it’s the wondrous normality of life that is truly astonishing. If we could all be tourists on Earth every day of our lives, clutching the sand and laughing for simple joy, we’d all be happy.

If you haven’t seen the movie, or if you want to relive some of the best moments, here are, in order, the early scene when things first go wrong at the space station (lots of action drama)…

And the penultimate scene where Bullock finally finds a way (both with her machines and in her heart) to get back to Earth. A couple notes on this brief scene. You see a little fat golden Buddha on the dashboard of her space module. That’s because she’s now on a Chinese module, after being on a Russian craft earlier, and after starting off on an American craft. When she is on the Russian craft, you see a little golden orthodox Christian picture of a saint (or Christ himself, perhaps, it goes by quick, I’m not sure). So the shot showing the Buddha statue I don’t believe is meant to be “multi-cultural” in an anti-Western sense, but rather just pointing at the universal striving towards faith and God. I actually think it’s a rather remarkable and kind of “old school” way to hint about God in an “interfaith” way, and it’s in no way inappropriate in the context of this movie in which, after all, the protagonists spend most of their time floating above the Earth rather detached.

Bullock’s lines in this scene might seem a little forced or silly if you haven’t seen the whole movie, but again, I find them rather charming. Regardless of whether this particular scene moves you or not, I hope you can at least see how it’s lovely and exciting and life-affirming (and maybe even God-affirming).

Finally, I’ll add that the movie sets up Bullock’s character as being rather scientific and pragmatic, but that in the midst of the drama you learn that she’s lost her little girl to an accident. At one point (just before the scene below) she almost gives up all hope and turns off her oxygen, before getting the angelic visitation from Clooney/Kowalski that I mentioned above. In the context of the movie then, this scene is not just exciting visually but also dramatic on a personal level. “Either way, it’s gonna be one helluva ride” might seem a rather lame line, but I think it works in the context of this remarkable movie. Also, her line about “it reminds me of a story…” is a callback to something that Clooney’s character often said, and at this point Clooney, has sacrificed his own life to keep Bullock alive, even though it left her all alone with no idea what to do…

After her “cheesey” lines, note, she looks up at the sky and says, “I’m ready.” She’s talking to God there. I can’t think of a more lovely and life-affirming moment in recent films. Just beautiful.

The very best part is the very end, but I can’t find a youtube clip to embed here, so if you’re interested, you’ll just have to watch the whole darn movie. Cheers!