Don’t get me wrong: Gravity is an impressive achievement. In filming a saga of astronauts stranded in space, Alfonso Cuarón (hailed for such distinctive work as Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También) has artfully used all the cinematic tools that today’s Hollywood has to offer. Since I can’t wrap my brain around technology, I can only marvel at Cuarón’s creative use of CGI and other tricks to show Sandra Bullock and George Clooney navigating weightlessly through Zero-G. And the realistic views of the sun rising over the rim of our own planet are staggeringly gorgeous.
Why then, didn’t I feel moved as well as impressed?
We human beings have always been fascinated by the idea of space travel. Georges Méliès, back in 1902, filmed the fanciful voyage of some scantily dressed cuties, whose rocket ship hits the Man in the Moon smack in the eye. By the Sixties, when the space race between the US and the USSR had heated up for real, Hollywood couldn’t get enough of astronaut movies. Roger Corman’s War of the Satellites tried for a thriller involving space aliens, and Don Knotts, in The Reluctant Astronaut, played the challenges of weightlessness for laughs. But none of this prepared Sixties audiences for 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its mind-blowing view of a future in which space travel is routine and computerized technology is a way of life. Fans are still arguing about the film’s meaning, but its visual portrait of life in space is still aesthetically unforgettable. Then a decade later came Alien, which discovered that a spaceship full of astronauts was a rip-roaring backdrop for a monster flick.
Alien found suspense by picking off its characters one by one, until we were down to the gutsiest of “final girls,” Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. By contrast, the suspense in Gravity is of a less gimmicky sort: we are asked to invest our emotions in the fate of someone who may or may not have the guts, stamina, and ingenuity to survive a life-or-death situation. This is hardly unique in the annals of Hollywood. Think Cast Away, 127 Hours, The Life of Pi, and Robert Redford’s upcoming All is Lost. I found Sandra Bullock’s plight gripping, but never enough to make me forget that it’s only a movie. The reviewers who’ve commented on the B-movie aspects of Gravity’s plot are quite right. There’s the relationship between the grizzled veteran and the green-around-the-gills rookie, along with a cascade of unfolding disasters, and (of course) the eye candy of Bullock facing death in her skivvies.
I’m married to an aerospace engineer who once seriously hoped to join the astronaut corps. And I myself, as a U.S. Pavilion guide at Osaka’s Expo 70 just one year after the first moon landing, quickly learned to respect the challenges of space exploration. I well remember suffering, along with everyone else, when the astronauts of Apollo 13 seemed to be lost in space for real. Ron Howard’s 1995 movie version of that apparently doomed mission had me breathless with suspense, even though the outcome was well known. I cared more in Apollo 13 than in Gravity because Howard’s characters seemed more complete. I knew all they were risking in human terms, and I desperately wanted to see families reunited and lives on earth continue onward.
Which doesn’t detract from Gravity’s accomplishment as a darned good technothriller. The engineers I know have given high praise to its grasp of space science. And for me it’s accomplished something else: now my husband doesn’t yearn to be an astronaut anymore.