“Nothing can doom [humankind] but the belief in doom, for this prevents the movement of Return.” — Martin Buber
Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) in "Gravity"
Alfonso Cuarón makes myths. As a mainstream entertainer, ambitious artist, and passionate activist, his motion pictures are simultaneously fantastic escapes and symbolic mirrors brewing a Borgesian stew of realism, magic, philosophy, and politics, under the masks of myriad genres: children’s film (A Little Princess), romance (Great Expectations), erotic coming-of-age road movie (Y Tu Mamá También), fantasy (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and noir dystopia (Children of Men). All of these films have a fairy tale flavor within respective realities (or vice versa–his Prisoner of Azkaban, the best of the Harry Potter franchise, rescues the series from the burdensome and overbearing confines of restrictive special effects, the actors finally appearing relaxed so they can act in J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world), and Cuarón desires to have us reflect on the real world that birthed such stories, to open our eyes, ears, and mouth, to see and to honestly communicate rather than passively look on. One of the most important Information Age filmmakers, he understands the present’s technological magic, compressing time and flattening the Earth, and he senses that, with the treasures of inventive progress, we’re becoming increasingly disconnected from contexts (temporal and spatial) and from each other. The Earth seethes with conflict and tragedy, and the filmmaker displays how people cocoon themselves from duress and compassion in money, sex, work, televisions, and now outer space.
His newest film, Gravity, is an astounding 3-D visual feat where Cuarón’s troubled Earth is a beautiful background mural. His fledgling hero, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), is a novice astronaut who finds herself disconnected and adrift in the inhospitable and silent void of outer space after an unexpected satellite explosion cuts off NASA’s transmission and destroys her mission’s spacecraft. As a bare bones thriller, the picture is a triumph of finely crafted intensity, with Ryan moving from one module of inhospitality to another, the perils of debris, physics, time, and technology working against her. But what lingers long after the visceral excitement fades, and is palpable throughout the levels of daring and contingency, relates to the divide between space’s infinite silence and isolation and what’s happening down there on the crowded Earth, so serene from the stratospheric vantage.The sound that bursts withGravity’s introductory title card, moving to the threshold of what’s sonically possible in a movie theater, anticipates not only the frenzied struggle of survival, but also a desperate longing pulsating beneath the film’s surface spectacle. “In space…there is nothing to carry sound,” we’re reminded by a written prelude, “Life in space is impossible” being the final declaration to offset the hubris of exploratory science.