Gravity – Alfonso Cuarón retells Kubric and Tarkovsky in a feminist reading. (Film Review)

Ryan, you’re going to have to let go.

I want to hear you say you’re going to make it.

At the risk of being unpopular (and who cares about being popular right?) I’m going to perform a completely feminist reading of Gravity, because it does justice to the film maker, so if the ‘F’ word offends you, consider this your warning, and ‘let go’.

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I’ve read around the traps that Cuarón had to fight to keep a female lead against Warner Brothers ‘better judgement’ in the making of Gravity, which if true, reveals the depth of ignorance of studio heads, but at the same time, that very ignorance turned out to be a blessing because if WB collectively had the wit to see the multiple layers of the subtext of Cuarón’s work, its highly doubtful Gravity would have been made. Gravity, ultimately is the long-awaited feminist retelling of 2001: A space Odyssey, with a splash of Tarkovsky homage via Soderbergh, that sees a the original masculine gaze of Kubric to the ‘out there’ of the greater intelligence that influences and directs the evolution of man, transformed when Cuarón turns this about completely, beginning with a ‘out there’ gazing back toward earth; the possibility of a higher intelligence is replaced by human aloneness and the search within for a divine, and the masculine competitive aggression wrapped up in a po-mo anxiety that is afraid of death, is replaced by the female emphasis on birth, life, renewal and the very practical business of survival. The point of Gravity is summed up in the very real moment when Kowalski asks Stone what sort of name Ryan is for a girl and she utters the reply of all women: “My father wanted a boy”. 

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Plotting and structure are pitted against each other, with 2001: A space Odyssey being primarily about the ultimate act of creation as influence over the evolutionary progression of man, eventually turning man, via an act of other worldly transcendence into a sort of star child, sentient being that observes earth from afar. By contrast Gravity sees a woman, working in space (in full command of technology) who is still mourning the loss of her child, her aloneness indicating there may not be another. Floating off into space means certain death, as occurs to the men in the film, rather than connection with a sentient being, and space is silent and counter-intuitive, not a battle ground of wills pitted against each other as with the Kubric film. When Bowman is transformed into the bubble-boy, he observes planet earth from a state of a new creation, whereas Stone returns to earth in a blaze of glory, the final image of her feet firmly planted on the ground is a refusal of any higher power be it, god, alien or technological and her prayer of thank you is spoken to mother earth, not an omnipotent god. The enemy in the Kubric film is mysterious, unidentifiable, impossibly superior, and undoubtedly male, be it a computer smarter than its maker or a mysterious alien on Jupiter. For Stone and Kowalski the enemy is an accident, unintelligent and chaotic, but real and the sort of disaster they were both trained to expect and deal with.

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Technologically, Gravity had to do more than meet and match 2001: a Space Odyssey, it had to retell the experience of space. In the Kubric film, as in Takovsky’s Solaris and Sodebergh’s re-creation, space is emphasised by its separation, holding the viewer at a distance despite the proximity of the visuals, constantly reminding the viewer that this the protagonists experience, and the viewer is a static observer, intending to take a philosophical perspective on the state of events. Cuarón completely transforms this, and takes us into deep space.  The 3-D is palpable, used to alarming effect, to centre the viewer in the narrative. We are with Stone as she spins, the earth and its safe arms nothing more than a hopeful backdrop against the stomach churning whirls of the meaningless expanse of space, aloneness theatrically repeated even as a being floats off into the eternal blackness of a nothing that goes on forever. Cuarón uses his long shots, the opening shot itself is seventeen minutes long, to affect and interrupt our cinema viewing habits, and discombobulate genre codes so that never again is space a thing ‘out there’ from which we are safe ‘down here’ but it is forever connected to our planet extending our awareness past previous boundaries even has it turns our face toward home. The addition of true to life narrative – no aliens, no evil computers – brings the proximity of space into earths atmosphere, so rather than all the nerdish techno-babble forcing an alien reading, it grounds it just as Stone so emphatically is at the end.

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Which brings me to the Solaris / Clooney connection.  Clooney has been in space before, of course, and not just as Mike Kowalski. He was there in 2002 as Dr. Chris Kelvin, examining the crew on the space station orbiting the planet Solaris, the Steven Soderbergh 2002 remake of the 1972 Tarkovsky classic – a film (incidentally) Tarkovsky didn’t like because of its adherence to science tropes, something he tried to avoid. Dr. Kelvin was in space, not trying to outwit a super computer, but trying to outwit a super planet that imposed itself on the memories of humans to force them to reconnect with the dead in their lives. The use of Clooney as the hallucination that guides Stone is less of a masculine instruction on a female mind, and more of a further deconstruction countered against a sci-fi masculine ideal. Kowalski is Stone’s subconscious communicating with her in a fear-infused dream, another repositioning of the external intelligence against the self-sufficiency and intelligence of the human mind and its ability to survive. It is immediately after this communication with ‘herself’ in the dream that she is able to locate Kowalski and her daughter as dead, acknowledge a desire to imagine them together, and reaffirm her will to live, directly opposing the Solaris controlled hallucinations (mostly women who visit men) who lead the protagonists to their annihilation. Where Kelvin’s subconscious willed him to death, Stones is integral to her survival ethic.

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I could go on, but we’re already deep in overdrive on Gravity.  When Abel Ferrara was asked if Ms.45. was a feminist film, he argued of course not, because it was written and directed by a man. Gravity is uncomfortable in a similar way, and yet who better to counter the machismo of the earlier films than another man who can’t be accused of inventing perspective for personal gain. The film is slightly shaky when it moves toward inspirational; there are times when Ryan is encouraged to let go of what she holds dear for the battle she needs to fight, and these feel sentimental, but they are rare and easily ignored.  Gravity combines art house feel and intelligence with state-of-the-art Hollywood wow-power making it entirely respectful and succesful in its feminist retelling of one of the greatest films of all time.

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