I love the Alamo Drafthouse. It may be because there aren’t any theaters like it in Oklahoma. The Warren Theatre in Moore is wonderful and classy, and it sets the standard in a state that is starved for quality cinema experiences. But Drafthouse offers a unique experience unlike any other. Sure, they serve food, but who doesn’t these days? No, what Drafthouse offers is an open appreciation for all things off-kilter, an unabashed love for the weird and wacky. They host quote-alongs of classic movies (Ghostbusters and Spaceballs are coming up in Austin), they have a studio that creates genre movies that seem destined to become cult favorites, and they feature independent movies nearly every day. While you wait for your movie to start, you’re treated to clips both famous and obscure (mostly obscure) from movies, TV shows, music videos, advertisements, etc. that match the theme of the feature presentation. On my last trip to one of the Drafthouses in Austin a couple weeks ago, the movie was Gravity, so there were a lot of clips of people falling down, things falling on people, space movies, and Wile E. Coyote falling from cliffs.
These clips were funny and head-shakingly strange and out of the blue, and little did I realize it was the most relaxed I’d be for the next two hours. I ordered a pizza to share with my friend, Kevin, and a vanilla shake for good measure, since the shakes there are quite tasty. Then the movie started and I forgot my food and drink and that my hands and mouth were even moving.
“Gravity is an experience” was probably the most overused line in all critics’ reviews of the film, but I can’t blame them. My friend Thomas leaned over to me before the movie started and quoted a tweet that said, “Gravity restored my faith in American cinema,” and we both laughed, both because it’s a ridiculous statement and because Gravity’s director, Alfonso Cuarón, is from Mexico. But that’s the kind of genuine enthusiasm Gravity engenders. I’ve seen space movies before, and goodness knows I’m a sucker for science fiction (I liked Oblivion, if that tells you anything), but the space in Gravity was different from other movies. Space in Gravity is a character, a villain, a force that may not be with you, thanks, but will always be against you.
There are plenty of scientific reasons to take issue with Gravity, I’m sure, but it certainly looks realistic. Gravity concerns two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) that are stranded in orbit around Earth when their shuttle is torn apart by satellite debris sent careening around the planet by a freak Russian accident. Given the nature of the story (it’s in space- would you shoot on location in space?), it’s natural that they got a few things wrong. But that didn’t bother me, either at the Drafthouse viewing or at a second viewing in the balcony of the Warren a week later. Cuarón’s approach to shooting space includes a lot of CGI and camera/lighting trickery, but no interstellar movie comes close to the realism he achieves in Gravity. Part of the appeal is that scenes develop at a slow pace, and Cuarón allows us to see what calamity is about to take place and why, which creates a real sense of intense dread and frustration at being powerless to stop it. The slow coiling of a parachute rope, a piece of wiring aflame floating by the camera in zero gravity, satellite debris dismantling a space station in the background while Sandra Bullock works obliviously in the foreground- all become portents of the intensely choreographed disaster sequences that make up the entire movie.
This would all make Gravity a fine movie on its own, an unparalleled technical achievement that changes the game for other effects-driven movies, much like Avatar. But Gravity is a much deeper film than just a tech triumph. Cuarón’s movies have always carried a deep symbolism, from the poetic imagery in A Little Princess (still his best film…) and the political allegory of Y Tu Mamá También to the adolescent angst at the core of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the doomsday musings of Children of Men. Gravity isn’t any different. Even if it weren’t for the backstory of Sandra Bullock’s character centering around a daughter she lost in a freak accident, her and Clooney’s struggle for survival would still read well as a simple image of recovery and rebirth. It’s hard to argue with that when there are blatant images of Sandra Bullock in the fetal position (a call back to 2001, perhaps?) and of Bullock shedding a placental astronaut suit at the climax of her fight to live. And what to make of Sandra Bullock’s last line? Who do you think she’s directing it to?
When the movie finished, I looked down and wondered where my pizza and shake had gone. Apparently I had eaten my meal, but, for all I know, the waiter stole it out from under my face while it grimaced in the tension that had settled collectively on the entire theater. There’s a lot of talk about Gravity’s Oscar chances and what it all means, but some movies transcend their own buzz and last long after awards season ends. Gravity will be one of those movies, for the indelible images of astronauts floating about untethered above a gorgeous Earth; for the life-affirming balance Cuarón strikes between imagery/art and professional achievement; for the simple, perfect ending. Go read about all the naysayers debunking the physics and science behind it all; I’m still thinking about the way the sun looked on the Ganges.