If beginnings and endings alone made a great film, then Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity would shoot to the top. The opening’s breathtaking—in beauty, intricacy and duration—long take not only marks a quantum leap in CGI (computer-generated imagery) but also, in its glorious wedding of cinema and outer space, reminds us how the two were made for each other from the start.
From the ur-text of narrative film, Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), to the apotheosis of the sci-fi genre, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), motion pictures’ unprecedented ability to outdo and fool the naked eye found its transformative twin in space travel’s transcending our earthly bonds. And Gravity’s conclusion (in both senses of the word) brings the cinema/outer-space confluence full circle, while manifesting, more specifically, the film’s umbilical connection to Melies’ and Kubrick’s masterpieces.
The Chinese space capsule’s splashdown and sinking in Gravity uncannily matches the French module’s (literally) gravity-driven plunge onto and into the ocean in A Trip to the Moon. The allusion/homage to 2001 is thematic rather than visual and far more profound.
2001’s famously ambiguous final sequence finds the sole surviving astronaut in a Jupiter holding tank, whence he’s transformed by extraterrestrial intelligence, in seconds, into a dying old man, then sent back to Earth as a free-floating embryo, seemingly to jump-start evolutionary change.
Gravity’s ending references evolution more directly—and atavistically. Cast adrift on the open sea following her escape from the submerged capsule, the sole surviving astronaut sheds her spacesuit, washes ashore on a deserted beachhead, amphibiously slinks to the edge of the water line, and slowly—yet evolutionarily (as in 2001) incredibly fast—pushes herself up from the sand, struggles to become erect, and trudges off a reborn biped, seemingly bent not on advancing humankind but on starting from scratch.
The back-to-square-one message follows logically from the disastrous events that constitute the bulk of the film, in which cutting-edge space technology is shown to be its own, and human beings’, worst enemy. The message’s failure to fully convince—and therein lies Gravity’s fall from greatness—comes partly from the film’s post-opening midsection devolving into a standard-issue action flick, partly from the message’s Cecil B. DeMille-ism. Just as DeMille’s last-minute moralizing failed to rescue his biblical epics from the prior eighty-nine minutes’ lascivious excess, Gravity’s film-ending call to come back down to earth is drowned out by the thrilling outer-space adventure and cinematic spectacle that preceded it.
Which is not to recommend hibernating after the opening astronautic dance and regaining consciousness just before touch-down. It is to bemoan an exceptional film’s not living up to its full potential. Gravity doesn’t totally defy the double entendre of its title; it simply levitates much of it into oblivion.
VincentBrook teaches at USC and UCLA and is the author, most recently, of Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir and Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles. His co-edited anthology on the films and plays of Woody Allen is due out in December.