To Build a Fire in Space: Gravity

There’s a certain kind of story that I’ve always loved, though you don’t see it very often. It’s usually short, tightly written and breathtakingly intense. It’s the one where someone is doing routine work in an extremely hazardous environment, where if one thing goes wrong it will be an utter catastrophe. But the person doing the work doesn’t worry about this, because the work is routine, they’ve done it many times before, and they know exactly what to do in order to avoid disaster. The only problem would be if the unexpected occurs and it never does.

And then the unexpected occurs.

Gravity poster

Don’t let go. Really. Don’t!

Everything that follows occurs with inexorable and terrifying logic, and the protagonists find themselves fighting desperately against what seems like their inevitable doom, leaving the reader or viewer barely able to breathe because the tension is so great. I first encountered this kind of story when I was in eighth grade and discovered Jack London’s stunning “To Build a Fire,” which you can read at that link. If you’ve never read it before and have an hour on your hands, I advise that you drop everything right now and go read it. (It’s only a short story.) I promise that after the first few pages you won’t be able to stop. The inimical environment London sets the story in is the Yukon, where it’s 50 degrees below zero and your spit turns to solid ice before it can reach the ground. The protagonist is simply taking a walk through the woods to a logging camp. He doesn’t expect anything to go wrong. And when…well, read the story to find out.

You don’t see this kind of story very often because it isn’t easy to create. It has to be worked out by the author with deep knowledge of the details of the environment in which it takes place. The author has to understand the logic, the physics, of the situation and know exactly what will happen if they go awry. But when done well, this is one of the most horrifying stories an author can tell.

The movie Gravity is also that story.

Gravity is “To Build a Fire” in space and proceeds with exactly the kind of terrifying logic that London’s story does, except that the brilliant Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón has done London two better: He’s set the story in an even more inimical environment — the orbital space a few hundred miles above earth’s surface — and he’s depicted it visually. This is a story that must have been incredibly difficult to depict visually, as evidenced by the fact that Cuarón and his son Jonás (who co-wrote the screenplay) took four and a half years to make it. The film takes place almost entirely in space, starting at the fictional space shuttle Explorer,  and given Cuarón’s penchant for lengthy, unedited tracking shots — the opening scene continues for a full 13 minutes without a single cut but with a lot of camera movement — required the development of brand new filmmaking technologies to make many of its sequences possible. And yet, as you watch it, you never sense the hard work taking place behind the scenes. You feel like you’re really there in space with the characters (played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, with a few briefly glimpsed bit players and the voice of an unseen Ed Harris at Mission Control in Houston), especially if you see it in IMAX 3D (and this is one of the very few films that absolutely begs to be seen in IMAX 3D, though the experience is so intense that it probably works pretty well in normal, flat widescreen mode too if you absolutely have to see it that way).

Gravity is only 91 minutes long, because it has to be short. Stretching it out further than that would have destroyed its intensity and ruined Cuarón’s tight storytelling. It’s a cliche to refer to an exciting movie as a roller coaster ride, but in this case the comparison is remarkably apt. A roller coaster is an almost purely ballistic device — the only mechanical portion is the slow ride up to the top of that first hill — acting precisely according to two physical factors: gravity, which pulls the coaster back down that first hill, and inertia, the tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, which keeps the coaster moving once it finishes that first drop. Ironically, given its title, this film is more about inertia than it’s about gravity and much of its horror and excitement comes from watching Bullock and Clooney struggling to escape inertia’s merciless grip, which keeps them in relentless motion just as it keeps a roller coaster in motion. But roller coasters are carefully designed so that inertia keeps you moving to all the right places; the inertia that’s acting on Bullock and Clooney has gone terribly wrong. If you’ve ever been in a car that’s gone into a high-speed skid on wet or icy pavement, you know what inertia feels like when it goes wrong. You can think of this movie as a 91-minute high-speed skid on very slick ice — and if that sounds boring, you’ve never lost control of your car.

The soundtrack for Gravity is on Spotify. Do a search for “Steven Price” (the composer and sound designer for the film) and it will appear in the dropdown list. Listening to it won’t spoil anything about the movie, but it will convey its heart-pounding relentlessness. And yet, as great as this score is, Gravity is also very much about silence — the profound silence of vacuum, where there’s no medium to carry sound. When the film opened with a silent panning shot of the earth’s surface as seen from 220 miles up (where the shuttle astronauts are making modifications to the Hubble telescope) I was afraid even to chew my popcorn because I didn’t want to interrupt that haunting silence. But when the action started and Price’s score kicked in, I completely forgot I had popcorn in my mouth. (I think I swallowed it; it’s hard to remember.)

A few articles have pointed out some technical errors in the film’s scientific premise, but the errors don’t matter, because the Cuaróns, father and son, along with the stunningly talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, have achieved something far more important than accuracy — realism. The last time I remember a movie about outer space feeling this real was 2001: A Space Odyssey, where director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke also captured that haunting sense of the silence and terror of space. But the Cuarons have an additional 45 years worth of filmmaking technology at their disposal, much of which they’ve invented themselves, and they’re going for a very different sort of film here, much more in the tradition of “To Build a Fire.” (Seriously. You should click on that link and read it.)

There appear to be some major films coming up for the holiday season — Aren’t there always? — but right now Gravity has my vote for Best Movie and it’s hard to imagine anything better coming along. A special nod should go to Sandra Bullock, who is the heart and soul of this film, a woman who brings humanity to the relentless forces of inertia, who fights through the entire film to put the lie to the words Cuarón places on screen at the beginning: “Life in space is impossible.” She brings warmth and humanity to the cold equations of physics and she deserves an Oscar far more for this film than she did for the dreadful 2009 film The Blind Side. Her performance in this film will be remembered much longer than that one will — and this is a movie that’s going to be remembered for a long time indeed.