“In space, no one can hear you scream” (Alien 1979).
Apparently though, In Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 thriller Gravity, they can hear you breathe. Gravity, the story of stranded mission specialist Ryan Stone, is both cinematically beautiful and aesthetically daunting in its nature; Cuarón’s choice of specific images layered with film score soundbites was thoroughly planned, and leaves the audience both intrigued and afraid of the ‘final frontier’. But what causes this visceral reaction within its viewers? I wouldn’t say Gravity is scary, necessarily, but something about the idea of the void of space has resonated with humanity, particularly in cinema, for quite some time; its sheer emptiness even aided in the scariness of Alien’s tagline above. When examining this phenomenon, an existentialist argument can be made for this reaction. Existentialism, the idea that humanity is essentially nothing in the big scheme of the world, adds a sense of disorientation and confusion once the absurdity of being is realized. Humans are afraid of the unknown and, when looking at just a snippet of Gravity (34:00-43:00), a viewer can distinguish certain choices in sound, editing, and imagery that examine these existentialist undertones.
First, let’s start with absurdity. As both Stone and Kowalski are dying (Stone suffocating, Kowalski drifting), time is apparently not relative. Kowalski begins with a pep talk, telling Stone how to get home with an eyeline shot panning to meet her gaze to the Chinese shuttle (Shengzhu), thousands of miles away. In this shot, Cuarón is utilizing a deep focus and the contrast of the blackness of space with the cool blue hues of the earth to give multiple layers of depth to the image; the space station is just an insignificant white spec and, as the camera continues with a tracking-tilt shot backward, the viewer sees Stone and the relativity to her destination as she’s working to survive. Overall, the choices of framing for the movie are interesting, as there is never an abrupt stop in movement. The continuity-styled editing is very hard to detect on a smale scale (partly due to the CGI of the movie) and is Cuarón’s artistic choice in order to keep the viewer’s eyeline in accordance with Stone’s. By characterizing the film in this way, Cuarón is imploring the audience to identify with the protagonist, especially with the loneliness she must feel after Kowalski disappears and she is completely isolated.
Sound-wise, the audience can hear Kowalski talking into Stone’s helmet, some static, her heartbeat and breathing, and finally a film-score that is playing soft, saddened music. Although Gravity utilizes some non-diegetic sound, it is mainly diegetic from the point of Stone, as she could hear most of these sounds within her suit. Just as we hear the final words of Kowalski, the tempo of the music and Stone’s heartbeat quickens, and the camera quickly whip-pans to her reaction. Cuarón uses multiple matte shots (or the CGI equivalent) to show reflections in Stone’s helmet, again maintaining the depth within the film’s composition. Just then, the viewer gets a constantly shifting direct view of what Stone’s eyeline would be, even through the foggy lens of her helmet. Because the existentialist argument in Gravity is perpetuated by the lack of sound (again the idea of silence and darkness in vast spaces), Cuarón makes this moment high-pressure. The low key lighting, low exposure, and canted framing make it scarier, as Stone begins to panic. Something the viewer cannot see entirely is much more daunting, as something that is clear can be identified and categorized. By constantly varying the rhythm of the movie (at one moment there is a lull, another, full-blown chaos), Cuarón keeps the viewer on their toes, making them always refer back to the vastness of space.
Image-wise, the film alludes to themes of the basis of humanity at multiple points. When Stone finally enters the ISS, the lighting becomes softer, more illuminating, and she assumes a fetal position within the station’s confines. Although some technologically-based tones keep playing, strings are more prominent in the score, and her heartbeat is less pronounced. In a way, Cuarón is utilizing this image to contrast it with the chaos that begins to ensue again in a few minutes. This soothing moment makes, for a second, the audience think that Stone is safe. The allegory of the resemblance to a baby in the womb signifies the sharp parallels of man with space. Although humanity has built all of the machines we see in the film and advanced to boldly go where they haven’t before, they are still children in the universe’s eyes: insignificant in the grand picture. When the camera cuts to a forward tracking-shot of the ISS, the black and white shadowing starts to reappear. We follow Stone with very fluid motion, with an establishing-shot of the fire that has broken out that she does not see, again utilizing editing and shooting choices to foreshadow possible disasters. When Stone finally tries to radio Kowalski, and does not get an answer, the final moment of this ‘scene’ culminates. With a close-up to her expression, the audience identifies the silence and loss that confounds Stone emotionally.
Finally, the part of Gravity that I find very existential is the fact that, although one can identify with its characters and tropes, it’s quite inorganic in its composition, removing the human factor entirely. In class, we talked about Manovich’s idea that, “born from animation, cinema pushed animation to its boundary, only to become one particular case of animation in the end”. Although one could argue that synchronous sound in Gravity was very prevalent, most of it was edited, spliced, and altered in a way resembling a Frankenstein-like track. The CGI component of the film is almost omnipresent, and Cuarón’s choice to make it in 3D on top of its already high concentration of depth makes it even more convoluted and difficult to categorize. In doing this, the movie becomes more existentialist because the viewer will not be catching every detail the first time they watch it. For example, the only death the audience actually witnesses is that of the Engineer, Dasari, which usually goes unnoticed, as it’s in the background during the first scene of the shuttle crash. There is a certain insignificance to his death, and the audience never actually sees Kowalski die (although we can only assume based on the principles of reality).
Food for Thought:
In Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, he develops an existential argument through his overarching theme of being lost and alone in the universe. Because every decision he made within the film was so thoroughly calculated, it is not an accident that he chose to have the main protagonist be female. If he wanted to indeed make such a strong argument with his film, then his choice of Ryan Stone is interesting in its portrayal. Even Kowalski comments on Ryan’s name, saying “What kind of name is Ryan?”, where she responds “Dad wanted a boy”. Although the camera (and the audience) follow her through her survival in space, she is never once portrayed as a stereotypical woman, but rather as a human being. I think, in this way, Cuarón is developing a new sort of existential argument, where gender is nothing in the scheme of the universe.