MOVIE REVIEWS (2014): A. Cuarón’s (2013) Gravity

14 April 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

If you hate space, then don’t go, but don’t stop anyone from going either.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to watch more movies more promiscuously. Toward this end, each weekend, my partner and I each get to pick a movie, and neither of us have any veto power (so far!) over the choices. I’ve decided to reply, like I reply to books, to the movies chosen.

A Reply To: A. Cuarón’s (2013)[1] Gravity

At some point in the painfully improbable course of events in this movie, Sandra Bullock’s character declares, in her frustration, “I hate space.”

A pity an weird irony that her character never entered it, then.

Hollywood has never particularly wanted for the sort of mind-bogglingly stupid and improbable occurrences in space that justly give the science fiction genre a bad name. And temptation pulls me hard here toward wanting to list the truly phenomenal sorts of stupidity that plague this movie: things on the order of Jurassic Park’s “nature will find a way” as a way to enable a certain kind of (fictional) narrative.

I found the stupidity already hard enough to stomach, enough so that were I not under an obligation (to myself) to finish watching the film[2] I’d’ve turned it off, so that when we finally arrive at the moment when Bullock’s character declares she hates space, it passed the threshold of the excusable.

I write, and I have written science fiction. And when I first started writing science fiction, my friend who had read far more of it than I had declared me naïve in my writing due to my ignorance of science fiction tropes. And this makes for a diagnosis of much error in much Hollywood science fiction.

To give only one example (in order to avoid litanising everything narratively revolting about this film), the narrative (that the director wants to tell) requires that Clooney and Bullock find themselves alone n stranded in space. And so the bizarre (and literally physically impossible) resort of a (deliberately) destroyed Russian communication satellite[3] knocking out all forms of communication between Earth and the astronauts gets resorted to.[4] But this needless resort has countless better alternatives, the most obvious of which insists simply that their communication gear has stopped working under mysterious circumstances and has no remedy.

To clarify where this goes: when writing, we have the story we wish to tell and then a casting about for an adequate narrative means to convey that story. Here, the story the writer wishes to tell involves Bullock’s isolation in space, and the casting about for an adequate narrative means fails spectacularly. In the following, I propose some more adequate means.

Notice I say mysterious circumstances. Doubtless, some patriot would find offensive the suggestion that good old-fashioned US engineering would build equipment that fails in space (so we’d better not suggest that the equipment simply malfunctions)—and if you think this kind of objection silly or never likely to happen, then ask yourself why (in a US-made movie) Russians fuck up everything by destroying their own satellite. The touchy vanity of the US space program hangs in this balance, as it has for decades.

Or, again alternatively, to propose “mysterious circumstances” might right make some viewers come to demand some explanation for this mystery—the most frequently resorted to one amounting to alien interference of some sort, in which case we must now also explain why they have chosen to meddle. And in this particular film, the answer seems Deepak Chopra obvious. However, Life of Pi demonstrates (more or less well) that you can invoke something like “I’ll prove to you that god exists” and still not concretely answer it yay or nay without cheating the audience. And if one chooses “mysterious circumstances” that seem familiar enough to bear a plausible explanation, even while remaining mysterious, then you may not even have to address the issue later in the film. If not, this resort does require some answer but, again, it can prove a perfectly workable answer to have Bullock’s character simply wonder, “I guess I’ll never get an answer to that mystery” and leave it at that. And, in any case, the only possible plausible explanation for the survival of Bullock’s character requires the existence of a fiction like God, because nothing else suffices to keep her alive through all that the film claims happens to her.

The underlying point behind all of this: when the means selected to carry the narrative fail in self-consistency, then stupidity prevails in the movie, as it does here in abundance. And I imagine there already exist no shortage of people (1) tearing their hair out over the stupidities of this film and (2) howling from the mountaintop in perplexity why anyone could like this film on its face.

So this brings us to “I hate space.” This movie has no desire, much less any intention, to take its setting seriously. It serves only as spectacle and pretence, even though at times it provides visually concrete experiences not otherwise available to similar narratives on Earth, i.e., panoramic views of the entire planet. You could transfer this movie to the world of The African Queen and have to change very little beyond the “skin” of the movie.

For those who’ve read Godwin’s (1954) “The Cold Equations,” about a spaceship operator’s attempts to find a way not to jettison a stowaway from the ship (because her additional mass makes a sufficient distance over the vast length of the journey that she endangers it), or even those who watched Apollo 13, one can hardly miss that the hostility of the non-environment of space leaves an only extremely narrow range for error. Once you start resorting to destroying whole space stations in hails of rubble, you’ve moved so deeply into a realm of the astronomically improbable that you essentially negate the validity of the setting.

In other words, you leave space. So for Bullock’s character to lament she hates space seems as incongruously naïve (from a writer’s standpoint) as my friend noted in my own naïve early science fiction. In Dick’s (1969)[5] Ubik, one character struggles up a flight of stairs in an appropriately epic way; this takes the everyday and heroises it just as Welty’s (1941) “A Worn Path” makes epic the elderly Black woman Phoenix Jackson’s walk through the woods for her grandson’s medicine. Gravity gives us the reverse by failing to render to scale the actual scope of what constitutes the epic in the non-environment of space.

So, just as the film disingenuously identifies Russians as idiots vis-à-vis outer space, this hatred of space equally disingenuously makes a straw man in order to plump up Bullock’s return to Earth as profound—after the equally stupid resorts of (1) a depopulated Chinese space station—note the irony?—and (2) a saccharine radio encounter with a Chinese farmer and his infant child. All else besides in this steaming heap, what discourse gets served by this (deliberate) misprision of “space” in order to wax sentimental about Earth as our only proper home?

As a matter of cold logic—a page taken from Godwin’s story—the materially limited character of our planet offers three basic avenues for human survival: (1) spreading out into space, or (2) changing our biological requirements such that we reach a level of existence smaller than our environmental depletion. We might do this by changing how much we consume, by making more efficient how much we consume, but making what we must consume smaller, by dying off by the billions, by inventing matter transfer or creation devices that replenish our supplies, and on and on. Technocratic capitalism, which has levelled critiques at Godwin’s story on similar grounds, insists that “technology will find a way.”

And just as Cuarón’s narrative resorts prove stupid in his movie, the narrative resort of technocratic capitalism similarly shows signs of not working out as promised—as if one addressed a burning house by adding more fuel. Our current consumption of fossil fuels resembles, as one person puts it, “burning down a part of your house to keep warm.”

To hate space throws us, willingly or not, back into the arms of this technocratism—or, more precisely, to those branches of such technocratism that insist we can solve all of our problems at home and don’t need to venture out into space, which I’d brand nonsense. We’re like Godwin’s ship’s captain, who keeps thinking that his wishful thinking will change the cold equations confronting him. The story makes clear (by way of an object lesson) our pressing need to get off of the planet, whatever the costs or the difficulties.

To put it, if operatically and at the risk of false equivalencies, “I hate space” makes itself synonymous with DuPont’s “better living through chemistry.” Not only does this offer us a bait and switch but one where the switch proves worse than the bait.


[1] Warner Bros. Pictures (1969- )., Cuarón, A., Cuarón, J., Heyman, D., Bullock, S., Clooney, G., Harris, E., Esperanto Films (Firm)., Heyday Films., & Warner Home Video (Firm). (2014). Gravity. Rental [edition]. Burbank, CA.

[2] The additional irony: I chose to watch this movie, knowing nothing about it except that it had roused some favourable fuss.

[3] One may read this as a residual anti-communist reflex itself. Of course, only the Russians could do something so idiotic per the US imagination, despite the historical fact that the Russians have led the world in space exploration in every way from the earliest times. Were the film less disingenuous, a privately owned, US-based space tourism firm would have provided the narrative entity that destroyed its own communication satellite and (still impossibly) destroyed communication with earth.

[4] As I remember it—forgive me that I only saw the film once to check the detail—it seems as if the narrative claimed that all of the world’s communication satellites get wiped out by the debris field that starts orbiting the globe. My ears tell me that claim got made in the film, but maybe I remember thing incorrectly or heard wrong.

[5] Dick, P. K. (1991). Ubik. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books

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