Films set in space have always been about more than just, well, space.
With the release and subsequent success of Gravity, it’s worth considering the tradition that the film finds itself a part of, a tradition that an audience may only be semi-conscious of during the 90 minutes of Alfonso Cuaron’s story.
There are subtle homages to films of Space Cinema Past dotted throughout Gravity, but there’s three that I feel are worth exploring as the archetypes of all modern films set in space.
In doing so, it’s possible to get an idea of just how dense Gravity is, how lofty Cuaron’s ambitions are despite the film’s ridiculously lean run-time, and that on the surface its narrative is quite straightforward and singleminded, in comparison to those below.
Also, while we’re in space, here be SPOILERS.
1. Space as nightmare – Alien
Probably the most used and abused style of space film, it really hasn’t been surpassed by Ridley Scott’s Jaws-in-space. The alien to me is the manifestation of all of our nightmares about space: cold, dark, unspeakably unnatural, and in every direction it leads to death. The creature itself is slithering, dripping, screaming mortality.
There is nothing so horror as the alien in Gravity, but where it really evokes the idea of space as a nightmare is in the fragility of our lives in space. The Nostromospaceship in Alien is a hulking, clunking piece of machinery, held together as much by the will of its crew as it is the advancement of our technology. So too are the shuttles and space stations of Gravity – essentially drifting coffins of technology, foolishly pretending that they can sustain life when there is nothing but death all around.
To live in space is unnatural, a fallacy, and Gravity shows us that a film doesn’t need rows of hyper-extending teeth to make our nightmares real.
2. Space as psychology – Solaris
I’m using Andrei Tarkovsky’s version here for reference. Solaris uses the isolation of space travel as means of exploring a character’s innermost psychology. The act of stripping the person from their normal terrestrial lives, jettisoning them from civilisation, allows a film to explore what makes a person human, and explores their desires, their failures, the essential keys to their humanity.
Gravity takes a far less ethereal and cerebral approach than Tarkovsky did in Solaris, but the journey of Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is one that reflects the tradition best exemplified in the earlier film. Her physical travel in space is complemented by her psychological quest, one that is only possible in the quiet of space, in the remoteness of it, in the ability to lose all the paraphernalia of life and see the core of our existence exposed.
At its core, at its most pure, Gravity brings existence down to its essence: breathing. Every inhalation, every exhalation, they’re all felt during the 90 minutes – you feel them counting up, you feel them running out. And this is without even considering the visual rebirth of Stone, complete with umbilical cord and amniotic buoyancy: a space embryo.
3. Space as humanity’s past, present, future – 2001: A Space Odyssey
Easily the most influential and the most highly regarded of all space films. Kubrick’s magnum opus has after shocks of influence in just about every scene set in space ever filmed. I won’t try to condense the thematic concerns of 2001 into a short paragraph, but it’s the exploration of our past, our present and our future as a life form that I think is worth addressing as a major element of Gravity.
Kubrick’s film covers vastly different landscapes, vastly different spacescapes, and covers almost an infinite amount of years in its 142 minutes. Cuaron’s only takes 90 minutes and one major setting to cover what is only a few hours in the life of its main character. The scope could not be more different on the surface, and yet to me they are remarkably similar.
Kubrick was interested in the unity of life, in the unison between our origins and our endings, between the lifeless matter of space and the organisms that flourish on earth. And in between, the joy and sadness, the love and cruelty, the full spectrum of emotional existence that we have. It’s huge.
Cuaron is, as mentioned, far leaner yet I think aims for the same unity of vision. The ending of the film is so primeval it is primordial, taking us from the heights of advancement and technological mastery to the origins of it all. To really see this, it’s worth considering the title. If anything, Cuaron is drawing attention to the one thing the film lacks: gravity. It is an exploration of what happens to us without gravity, what happens to us in space.
The film is a question about life, its meaning and purpose, and about what a miracle existence actually is. To rise about the nightmare, to explore who we are and where we come from, and then what our ultimate purpose is.
It is, like so many space films, more than just a film set in space.