99. Gravity

Gravity12013 brought the heavy-hitters. Not just with film, either. There was a triangle of exemplary titles from big media: The Last of Us, Breaking Bad (Season 5), and Pacific Rim. It was a good time to be a nerd. But for those more in the mainstream with film, they’d say Gravity, which was the closest science-fiction film yet to win the Best Picture Oscar. Only, this isn’t really science-fiction, unless you want to take that term semantically, but it really was the best picture of that year (though #94 and #15 would disagree).

This is the most exhilarating cinema experience I’ve ever had, and that’s certainly not a rare sentiment. The technical showcase of debris and explosions and the architecture of each craft are astounding, and support a high-concept nightmare scenario in scrambling around the largest claustrophobic space we have.

This is indeed a confined-space thriller, but as Sandra Bullock grasps for another piece of delicate machinery, we understand the consequence if she misses. Movie deaths don’t mean anything — we’ve been so desensitized — but drifting off into space as a conceptual is new and logical and terrifying.

There is a constant of momentum, best displayed by George Clooney in his final moment. The physics, or the illusion of physics, is cinematic language in action, and the delivery of rules on the fly. It’s a science lesson of sorts, toward building our understanding of what she can and can’t do. Suspense, tension, and fear come from rules and laws, as we know from the horror genre.

The gender politics of Gravity have never interested me. It isn’t because Sandra Bullock is so famous I don’t even see her as female, just ‘celebrity,’ it’s more that this movie, despite being fiction of science, is addressing the heart and not the head. The theme is neither explicit nor implicit — we have moments of specific allusion (2001 baby) that should key us off to rebirth and empowering, transcendence even, but there is also the male mentor, which some have read as problematic.

It could be the passing of the torch, or maybe, unfortunately, a claim that female empowerment will be an active collaboration. This is the filmic equivalent of Tomb Raider from the same year, and it’s good that said empowerment can take many shapes — murderous and cathartic, or pure willpower of astronomical proportion.

When Bullock returns to Earth, she’s larger than life on that IMAX screen, and not just because of how Mr. Cuaron films her, but because of what’s she’s overcome.

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