Warning serious spoilers ahead…
Gravity not only promises the kind of thrill and spectacle we’ve experienced previously in films like Avatar and Matrix, it also evokes the lineage of serious metaphysical science fiction, as in Kubrick’s 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. While it is no doubt one of the best films coming out of Hollywood in recent times, it can’t fail but to disappoint when compared to its forebears. Reviewers regularly note the sentimentalism of Gravity. The dramatic impact of the narrative is often diffused with cliché’s, such as ‘It’s time to go home now.’
So why did Alfonso Cuarón allow this film to be compromised by sentimentalism?
The plot of Gravity seems a clear allegory of the US economy. As in pre-2008 Wall Street, it begins with guys goofing around, playing with their toys. Suddenly out of nowhere, crisis strikes, the result of a chain reaction set off by a Russian decision to destroy its satellite (aka Soviet Union). The hero Ryan Stone finds temporary haven in an abandoned Russian space station, which is rapidly disintegrating (aka the ‘end of history’ utopia promised by the dissolution of the Soviet Union has proved false as Russian returns to its old anti-West aggression). Finally she finds the Chinese space station, which she finally manages to land back on earth (aka China’s economy promises a lifeline to the West, though it too will inevitably fall victim to the cycle of financial crises that is intrinsic to capitalism). Finally she reaches the shore, when she can stand again on her own two feet (aka one day the West will be free of financial uncertainty, and independent of other emerging economies).
Gravity is not unusual in telling a story of the US empire. Star Wars and Star Trek can all easily be read as versions of the national eschatology of universal freedom. But what makes Cuarón’s version particularly interesting is the character of Kowalski, played by the quintessential nice-guy, George Cluney. Kowalski is a strangely disembodied character, telling bar-room stories and offering gentle encouragement – ‘come on, you can do it’. There’s an echo of 2001‘s Hal in the oddly mechanical nature of his dialogue, made even more evident when he re-appears as a hallucination.
Kowalski seems the epitome of the indomitable spirit that is the core of the Hollywood hero. Everything can be reduced to self-belief. Believe in it, and it will happen. So when all seems lost as Stone passes out in the Russian capsule, Kowalski’s imagined advice wills her into action, which according to the iron logic of Hollywood leads to her inevitable escape. It’s as though we doubt that there are still Kowalski’s in the world, yet we are still captive to their story. We cannot do without them. There seems no alternative, other than to spin away into the void.
This is the challenging question posed by US culture. According to Gravity, the imaginative power of Hollywood will eventually prevail over the deeper structural issues that beset the economy. The argument has some juice. The capitalist system does depend greatly on trust and confidence. As a living creature it has the ‘jitters’ and can feel bullish. We are all desperate to encourage it however we can, from stimulus packages to sporting victories.
But inevitably there are limits to what this confidence can achieve. It certainly doesn’t magically make the environment an infinite resource to be mined at ever increasing rates.
So despite its unique post-industrial aesthetic, Gravity seems more of the same. It offers an imaginary logic whose expression in 3D encantment helps us put at bay the niggling doubts raised by economic reality.
And it’s why the world of real things offers a counterpoint to the ever-expanding regime of the screen. The screen is a vertical space where objects float freely, while the bench is a horizontal surface that accommodates things according to the law of gravity. Will gravity win in the end?