I saw Gravity last night with my girlfriend, and we more or less clung to one another for the entire 91 minutes of the film. We came out of the cinema totally drained, totally unwilling to talk about what we’d just watched. She later told me that she would have not wanted to see the film with anyone else, or, more broadly, Gravity evokes in the viewer a need for contact with other humans. The comparisons my girlfriend later made to Jodie Foster’s film, Contact, I think were apt in many ways, though the subject matters entirely differ. Gravity conflates subject, tropes, and cinematic theory in ways that no other film I’ve seen has been able to. Here’s why.
Gravity has, and will continue to, get press about being suspenseful, about humans trying to survive the worst-possible thing any human could endure. Yes, the vacuum of space is terrifyingly unforgiving, and the subject of the film is a great draw, but the subject of survival in space is a trope countless sci-fi films have touched on, so, it’s not the subject that makes the film brilliant. What really matters are how the formal elements of cinema are employed to accentuate two types of trauma: emotional and physical. It’s a switchboard that rapidly presents viewers subjective and objective kinds of traumatic experiences in cinematic form. That’s why I held my girlfriend’s hand so tightly, and she, mine.
It took me some temporal space to realize what was going on, cinematically, in Gravity, but these are my impressions: Gravity‘s usage of perspective and CG are clearly defined segments–the film uses cinematic artifice to evoke the subjective experience of personal trauma; the film conversely employs conventional cinematic tropes related to subjective experience to accentuate the experiences of physical trauma. Gravity‘s successes are formal, and those successes are informed by very frightening subject-matters.
I want to say a lot more about Gravity, but I don’t want to spoil it. Though, I will add a bit more about what Gravity does to the viewer, in a cinematic sense.
Video is, in a modern sense, old. Films are older than TV-shows, and TV-shows are older than things posted on YouTube and DailyMotion. While video is old, it’s (un)fortunately where media is going. Humans have dealt with symbolic systems for thousands of years, systems that are useful, but terribly inefficient (ironically, I am writing this in a symbolic form). Video, or, sequential representative images, are set to eclipse writing in many ways, but Gravity shows viewers that video (and by extension, videogames) is still a formally nascent medium.
Gravity is rife with CG. When it’s displayed, it’s not bad, but it is frequent enough to make viewers distanced from the conflicts at hand. While the trailers of Gravity focused on physical trauma, using very visceral excerpts to convey the movie, these CG segments set a tone for the more subjective issues, the traumatic experiences of the main character. It’s a beautiful use of film tropes and perspective to build tension that, outside of the context, would seem silly, but then draws the viewer into the struggle of the protagonist.
In Gravity, the CG footage is used to enhance the “real,” or more traditionally cinematic kinds of story-telling. Perspectives shift from an ostensible third-person with a lot of movement, to the first person. The first person moments are a bridge that links the CG moments of an astronaut being flung about with those of an astronaut facing problems, human problems.
In the end, Gravity succeeds so well because how one resolves trauma is made clear, and the message is one of hope, I think.
Gravity shows how blurred the line between emotional and physical trauma is; it is also a message about how formal elements of film can enhance the medium, regardless of content.
I recommend this movie to anyone with a partner they want to clench hands with for almost two hours.