‘Gravity’ and The Welcome Return of Grounded Spectacle

By  · Published on October 8th, 2013

A weird thing happened on my way home from a matinee screening of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. I cried. Like, actual tears down my face, shortage of breath, no control crying. The pitiful kind of crying you hope nobody else sees. I’m pretty embarrassed to admit it – not because I see any shame in crying, even (or especially) over a film, but because for the life of me I couldn’t understand why on earth I was crying over this film.

Gravity is no doubt an impressive technical achievement and an entertaining 90 minutes, but it hardly registered anywhere in the ballpark of emotional profundity for me. I found the trauma that Sandra Bullock’s character must overcome to be both forced and rudimentary, realized through some of the most on-the-nose thematic dialogue this side of Mad Men season 6. And don’t get me started on the 3D tears. I’m not trying to be cynical, but rather am attempting to illustrate the incredible gap I experienced between the character’s emotions onscreen and my belated visceral response to the film. I’ve seen many great films that have left me silent, even catatonic – films far “better” than Gravity that have asked me to walk away from them emotionally shattered or existentially crippled. But no film has ever elicited this type of reaction, and taken me so completely by surprise in doing so.

I finally realized I wasn’t emptying myself over emotional resonance, character identification, or poignant thematics, but something a bit more abstract: the spectacle.

I know a lot of people out there really love this movie. Many of my colleagues have already etched a spot on their top-of-the-year lists and are busy writing thinkpieces about its technical mastery, expansion of genre, and scientific verisimilitude. I am not one of these people. I think Gravity is a fine-tuned thriller in an almost mathematical sense – Speed meets Open Water meets Apollo 13, with Bullock revisiting Ripley’s Final-Girl-in-space. As with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (my favorite tentpole release in the last five years), I see Gravity not as a transcendent achievement, but exemplary of what Hollywood should be doing on a regular basis: providing entertainment that actually entertains, CGI effects that can actually be marveled at, a thriller that actually thrills without feeling rushed through production, focus group’d to death, and unashamedly stupid.

But my experiential takeaway from the film is more ambivalent. Gravity as I witnessed it is a concentrated, potent, and altogether impressive theme park ride of a film that is, as is the case with rollercoasters, also purely ephemeral. It is a really aggressive high that has a pretty quick comedown. All that can be marveled at, as a result, are the mechanics that made the ride so thrilling in the first place, the strategies and tools for its affecting experience. It’s one thing to come away from a film ruminating on the ways in which its cinematic world-making speaks to you. It’s something quite different to come away thinking almost entirely about how that world was constructed.

I have no intent to contribute to any hyperbolic reactions circling Gravity when I say that the film resembles “pure cinema” more than any studio-financed work in recent memory. Calling Gravity pure cinema is not to include it amongst some pantheon or canon, suggesting it merits continued revisitation and analysis.

In fact, the case is precisely the opposite. Gravity is pure cinema in its ability to turn the phenomenon of the moving image into a spectacle, into an “attraction” in Tom Gunning’s use of the term. Gravity’s science-fiction/NASA thriller forebears (whether or not it belongs within a strict definition of the genre, Gravity possesses the clear iconography of science-fiction, with all the space and malevolent debris and whatnot) are not 2001: A Space Odyssey or even Apollo 13, but Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon.

Sure, racing from space station to space station is marvelous and threatening and tense like seeing a moon creature pop up out of nowhere and not having the proper Victorian umbrella to turn him into a puff of smoke. But the real drama on display is “the trip” itself in each of these films: in Méliès’s film, the trip there is the industrial and technological means necessary for capturing the moving image, realizing special effects uniquely available within that apparatus, and imagining inevitable tech-y futures like those that involve space travel; in Cuarón’s film, the key is in the trip back, or the film’s use of cinema technology to exhibit the spectacle of space technology in order to take audiences from space down to earth after battling the forces of chaos and nature in the heavens with only centuries of scientific enlightenment and a bit of elbow grease.

110 years after A Trip to the Moon, space is a given, even perfunctory according to Gravity’s opening few minutes; how to land one’s feet on the ground is the mystery.

And therein, I think, lies the answer: one of the reasons that Gravity offers a different experience from other extravaganzas of special effects is that it arrives well after blockbusters have standardized a proliferating sense of groundlessness in their exhibition of technology by celebrating the fact that the camera can do virtually anything, and any event within the frame can be realized. The spectacular has become mundane; even destroying entire cities has grown tired. An impatient assault of stimuli has been continuously confused for spectacle. Over at, Jake Cole points out that that Gravity’s particular approach to the long take is actually par-for-the-course in mainstream films of this ilk. It’s probably worth reminding that Children of Men is an interesting film not because of its use of the long take, but because of the dystopian world that the long take renders immediate.

Technique in Gravity is far more foregrounded than in Children of Men, a tool for realizing spectacle as well as a spectacle in of itself. The long take, as Cole’s article suggests, is only meaningful in its use, not its mere presence. But Cole’s point of comparison – George Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith – draws more of a productive contrast than the author gives. Revenge of the Sith’s long-take isn’t as much coherent world-building as it is opportune chaos and rampant stimuli. The seemingly arbitrary fighter jets followed by the camera seem like they can go anywhere, do anything, at anytime. The 17-minute opening shot of Gravity, on the other hand, begins in near silence with at least some sublime patience given to the slow rotation of the earth, a patience that the film revisits occasionally, but too rarely, in its very best moments.

As opposed to stimuli and opportune chaos, Gravity is spectacle and organized chaos. Even when things go to shit and even when we move Gaspar Noe-style inside Bullock’s helmet as she succumbs to complete disorientation, the audience is given a privileged view of events not always afforded to characters. We see the destruction of a space station, the immobility of a prematurely launched parachute, the planted threat of some science-y control board about to catch flame. The spectacle of Gravity is not only the technology of the film itself, but the film’s corresponding portrayal of technology as something that can and will kill you. In order for such a spectacle to be realized, the film constructs a detailed geography of eminent threats, or organized chaos. It ain’t Tarkovsky as far as long shots go, but it ain’t Lucas either.

The importance of the movie theater for a film like Gravity cannot be overemphasized. Watching any trailer for Gravity on a laptop is a frustrating experience. Clooney and Bullock appear to be floating movie star heads attached to CGI astronaut bodies. The chaos that erupts around them seems entirely arbitrary (and it is in any space adventure that resurrects the politics of the Cold War to incite its conflict). The movie theater not only provides a larger map for Cuarón’s geography of chaos, but allows for a captive audience. Gravity is a film with admirable contempt for second-screen culture. That Cuarón’s two opening shots can induce nausea turned out to be a rather shrewd move, as it marries the events onscreen directly with an affective, corporeal response. There are even reports of people leaving IMAX screenings who find walking in a straight line difficult. It’s the closest we might get to experiencing what early audiences may have felt when they allegedly rushed to the other side of the theater while watching the Lumières’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat.

Any demonstrable identification with and experience of Gravity’s onscreen events don’t require character empathy or even thematic connection, but simply the possession of a human body and its ability to experience anything from nausea to frustration to awe. What I felt leaving Gravity was something incredibly simple, and perhaps fundamental to cinema’s original appeal, but something rather foreign in the face of today’s monotonous event cinema: the physical affect of onscreen scenarios. This is something that horror movies and comedies achieve with regularity, but is woefully lacking from cinema devoted to the spectacle of its own technological achievement.

To say that spectacle could use a bit more gut is less a testament to Gravity than it is to the lacking state of cinematic spectacle in the early 21st century of all eras. Here’s hoping Cuarón’s next makes me vomit.