Gravity and the Force of Manipulation

I still felt Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity in my body the day after I saw it last week.

I watched the movie with my jaw clenched and my left arm twisted tensely against my body. Ninety minutes of near misses, extended fluid shots, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney free-floating in space, gorgeous views of the Earth: It's such a visceral experience that it needs no explaining. You know when people can only explain a piece of art by saying "It works"? Gravity works.

That's all you need to know, really. Gravity is the most consistently enjoyable and engrossing experience I've had at the movies all year. I can't think of the last time I felt a movie so hard.

But there's a but.

You can enjoy Gravity on that physical, and very satisfying level, while at the same time being aware of what it is: first-class manipulation from a director who's a genius in that field. Most movies are manipulation—their success depends on forcing you to care—but few movies are this bald-faced about it. Cuarón does little else but torture Bullock's character Dr. Ryan Stone for the duration of the movie, starting a few minutes in when she's attempting to install a port outside of her space shuttle. That shuttle and the bulk of its crew end up falling prey to space debris, which is moving at bullet speeds.

From then on, it's a nonstop series of complications to get her and her astro-partner Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) back down to Earth. Problems include but are not limited to rapidly falling oxygen levels and the seemingly unreachable distance of a nearby satellite with amenities needed for further existence. There is fire. There is water. There is a gas tank that announces itself as empty at the least opportune time possible. There is final-girl level of endurance in Bullock.

Gravity is a horror movie where the killer is nature (or maybe its inverse). The shit that Cuarón (who wrote Gravity with his son Jonás) puts Bullock through reminds me of a more straightforward version of the shit David Lynch put Laura Dern through in Inland Empire (whose subtitle was: "A Woman in Trouble"). Gravity opens with a title card announcing that our heroes are floating 600 kilometers above Earth and reminding us, "Life in space is impossible," setting Stone & crew up for failure, or at least a hard fucking time.

"What now?" Stone asks at one point. "You gotta be kidding me," she says at another. You can empathize with her physiologically just by watching her flounder in space (what a predicament to be rapidly losing oxygen and have to be calm about it since breathing heavily will only make it burn faster). There's a built-in layer of tragedy when she reveals to Kowalski that her 4-year-old daughter recently died. This woman has been through so much, you want her to persevere. And when she talks to herself, addressing the umpteenth complication, the Murphy's Law of it all, she empathizes with you right back. She knows this is ridiculous, too. At one point, her tears float from her eyes into small orbs in front of her, extending off the screen via Cuarón's tasteful use of 3D. It's a metaphor that hits you in the face, but it's so gorgeous that you won't mind about the obviousness of it all.

I won't tell you whether Bullock completes her task of saving herself from the universe, but I will say that Cuarón's ability to deliver something that feels mostly plausible, something that doesn't feel like watching someone playing a video game and acing every level, is nothing short of masterful. Even when Gravity echoes Wall-E (more overtly but also more endearingly than Oblivion from earlier this year) and Bullock shoots herself through space with a fire extinguisher, it plays like a triumph, not as the silliness it otherwise might.

Watching this movie emotionally invested but also aware of what it was doing, I thought of something Lars von Trier said about Dancer in the Dark, a film about a similarly tragic mother who is going blind and given an impossible choice that leads to her downfall. There's a similar amount of protagonist torture there (it's so often the women that get beat up by their directors and so often the women that we want to succeed so badly). In the DVD commentary of Dancer, von Trier said, "When you hear this story, it's a lot of clichés put on top of a melodrama on top of whatever…but it's actually that your intellect, you can be taken further on your feelings than you can on your intellect." On this principle, Gravity takes us to space and back. The g-force is a doozy.