Gravity (2013) – dir. Alfonso Cuarón


Soyuz TMA-7

Soyuz TMA-7

Beware: contains spoilers!

To get any enjoyment out of cinema you must have the ability to suspend reality, otherwise how can you sit through a couple of hours where light that has been shone through a piece of moving plastic is projected on to a screen. (OK, I know that most films are seen in digital format nowadays – but the principle still remains.) But if it’s upon me to suspend reality it’s up to the director to not take me into the realm of fantasy when we are looking at something that is purported to be real. What you can get away with in a cartoon is not so easy, or credible in a film where the aim is to get us to empathise with the characters portrayed. By not abiding by that ‘agreement’ between film-maker and film-goer I believe Cuarón breaks that unwritten contract in ‘Gravity’.

You have to give it to the Americans, if nothing else they’re persistent. More than 20 years after the ‘fall of the Soviet Empire’ they make a dig at the Russians as being the cause of the disaster that is this film. The initial premise of ‘Gravity’ is that in wanting to get rid of a satellite quickly the Russians send up a rocket to destroy it therefore spreading shrapnel which hurtles around the planet, causing the disastrous sequence of events which Sandra Bullock will have to surmount.

Now why a country that was the first to send a man-made satellite into orbit, the first to send a man (and then a woman – long before the west considered doing so) into space, which ‘lost’ the race to the moon (but then that was just a vanity affair as witnessed by the fact that the Chinese Rabbit on the Moon at the moment is the first item from Earth to have arrived there in more than 40 years) but continued with more long-term, potentially beneficial space projects including MIR, the basis of the present International Space Station, and also which is, at present, the only country that can keep the ISS supplied by both occupants and material to that station, should be so reckless as to create a mega-disaster and threaten ALL space projects, of the past and the future, is totally ludicrous.

So the basic premise is a non-starter.

Next we have the character of Ryan Stone the, strangely genderless, name of the scientist played by Sandra Bullock (and one of the only two characters we see alive in the film). Now this film is in the past, a bit unusual for space films. It’s in the past as this crew of US-based astronauts arrived in space on one of the space shuttles, but the final mission of these craft was made in July 2011. I make a point of the past as if we were talking about incidents set in the medium to long-term future film-makers can get away with having all types of people in space. Just look at the bunch of misfits on the Nostromo in ‘Alien’ (1979).

However, so far, the numbers of humans that have gone, are going and will go into space is very small – and they are a very select bunch. I would have thought that if the choice was between ‘the most brilliant scientist in her field’ – as is Stone – who failed crucial aspects of her training (as she admits when she says that she was never able to dock a module in the simulator) or someone who was perfect at the tasks they would need to perform in space but only second best in their field then the latter would prevail.

On top of her ineptitude she is also a psychological disaster. We learn that her young daughter had been killed and she still wasn’t over it – many parents state that they never get over it. Yet we are expected to believe that NASA would send this virtual time bomb into space.

The next ludicrous premise revolves around her breathing. Once disaster hits and she is floating around in space she panics (she probably failed that part of the training as well) and as people often do on Earth in such circumstances she takes quick, short breaths. This can lead to hyperventilation and the first aid cure on land is to breathe into a paper bag (but where you get one of those nowadays is a bit of a dilemma). It’s taken me a long time (one of the reasons for the delay in posting this review) to get a definitive answer to the question ‘Can you hyperventilate in a situation where someone is breathing a high oxygen mix?’.

For a long, long time she is taking in so much oxygen that her reserves are losing a percentage point every minute. Surely this must have an effect on the brain? Surely she would have passed out and that would have been the (fortunate) end of the film? But she needs to use up her oxygen to propel her into jeopardy. By the time she gets into a spacecraft and ‘safety’ she is holding her breath. I didn’t time it but much, much longer than 90 seconds to 2 minutes which, I understand, a normal healthy individual can achieve. Or perhaps its just that everything which stretches credibility in this film just seems to go on forever.

She gets inside the ISS with her last breath and we get the obligatory striptease which has been in every ‘woman in space’ film since ‘Barbarella’ (1968) passing through ‘Alien’ along the way. This minor erotic interlude also provides those who see the representation of birth in this film as she virtually adopts the foetal position after she strips off her spacesuit. The other aspect of the birth analogy come from the fact that there are a lot scenes where humans are attached to each other of spacecraft by ‘umbilical’ chords, some which save, others threaten.

Her presence causes a fire – there’s no other explanation if not – and she runs away to the one remaining Soyuz. She is prevented from escaping immediately by one of the unfriendly and not nurturing umbilical chords, the chords of the prematurely deployed parachute, so she has to make a space walk to disconnect cables which would have been sufficient to tether a ship the size of the Titanic. She does this with a tool remarkably similar to one she was using earlier to disconnect a panel from the Hubble Telescope, a sort of modern equivalent to Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver. By now the debris that had destroyed the said telescope, the space shuttle and the rest of the crew, was coming around for a second bite of the cherry. And a huge bite it takes of the ISS, apart, that is, from Stone and her Soyuz. (Technically this is a masterful piece of cinema and watching it in 3D you instinctively flinch when this metal comes towards you.)

By now she should have realised that she was invincible, having survived such major disasters, but it’s quite the opposite – she gives up because she runs out of petrol. Her aim was to get to the Chinese space station where she hopes there’s a craft that could possibly make it through Earth’s atmosphere and have a parachute that will drop her gently to safety.

Considering this is supposed to be a ‘feminist’ film (not least as she is now the only character on-screen, George Clooney having sacrificed himself so that she might live) it’s strange that she only pulls herself together (after switching off the oxygen supply when she lost hope) when he comes back to her in her delirium and tells her that ‘nobody up there can harm her’ – that’s presumably not taking into account the ever-increasing amount of debris that is growing exponentially as virtually all of all countries’ satellites in Earth orbit have been reduced, or soon will be, to scrap metal.

In her dream he mentions the landing engines and that source of fuel. So even though she kept on crashing on the simulator on Earth (how could such an abject failure in training be allowed to go into space?) the knowledge is there to enable her to get to her only hope of getting down, the escape module at the Chinese station – obviously with a lot more hyperventilation and the obligatory, all-American, emotional speech full of platitudes and clichés.

But credibility us stretched to the very end. Considering that the planet is 8 tenths water and desert (not counting the Antarctic) it is astounding that she splashes down in shallow, fresh water in a temperate zone. Yet even with this amazing stoke of luck she ends up flooding the capsule (surely they’re constructed to be stable if landing on water however inefficient and incompetent the crew members?) and after floundering around in space she has to fight for her life on her home planet.

With her luck what was surprising was that she did not find a winning lottery ticket for Euromillions, the National Lottery (both with multi week rollovers), together with El Gordo and the Irish Sweepstake.

But she did, in a way. The whole of the planet would be in total disarray after the carnage that had been taking place a few hundred kilometres above her head. ALL satellites would have been destroyed, communications would be down throughout the planet, people would be rioting on the street due to the fact that couldn’t connect to their chosen social media, commerce would have ground to a halt, stock exchanges world-wide would be paralysed. It would be the end of life as we know it and yet she still gets a message that Houston has picked her up by radar. Come on, let’s be real. The last thing people would have been doing was try to track someone almost certainly considered to have died with all the rest in space.

The fact that this travesty of a film is even being considered for an Academy Award later this year shows how bad 2013 has been for cinema. If it was to win anything significant would just go to emphasise that the Academy has no appreciation of real cinema and such ceremonies merely exist to perpetuate the moribund idea of a Hollywood which has long passed its sell by date.

However, the tear drop was impressive (just before her almost attempt at suicide) and if the film is seen at all it should be in 3D and on a big screen.