New Criticals

Get a grip, Gravity.

Bob Mondello of NPR asserts in his review that, surely, there will be doctoral dissertations written about the latest film, Gravity (directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuaron), and he is right. But much like his and others’ lauding of the film’s mesmerizing views and technical mastery, he misses the type of critical engagement that a doctoral student would apply if he or she pushed, even for a second, beyond the eye-candy of the tracking shots: a dissertation on Gravity would be sustainable only because of the narrative’s numerous inconsistencies, sexist tropes, and many missed opportunities that offer entry into the ideological mechanics keeping it’s aesthetics in orbit.

The film Gravity, tongue in cheek, is grounding: it pins its characters and viewers to a cultural landscape built around stale notions of binary gender behaviors and heteronormativity, while contributing to the predictable “look” of Hollywood films’ mainstream whiteness and accepted forms of (masculinized) intelligence. It is 2013, yet we, the viewers, still get a hysterical woman protagonist—one of the smartest medical engineers in the world, mind you—who must choose between mourning her dead child and being a reasonable, logical person in order to survive. More concerning perhaps is the underlying tension that gets played out in the yo-yoing of the film’s narrative as it struggles to celebrate the heroic intelligence of Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) while constantly undermining it via her emotionality that incapacitates her, bringing her to the brink of death over and over and over again. Yes, her father wanted a son (the reason given for her masculine name), but the film never acknowledges its own anxiety about having a female play the sole survivor from the mission.

In fact, according to an interview given by director Cuaron, simply keeping a female protagonist in the final script was a huge win, and a big step, according to Bullock, in the film industry’s advancement of women actors. It's certainly important that women get leading roles (and kudos to Bullock's undoubtedly strenuous portrayal of the part she was given), but that does not excuse overlooking the larger implications that the content of such scripted roles for leading women carry both now and in the future.

Co-protagonist George Clooney’s equally one-dimensional character, Matt Kowalsky’s discussion of women in the film doesn’t help: he barks orders at Ryan (and sweetly forgives her when she apologizes for not following his instructions fast enough), while sharing stories about the consumerist desires of unfaithful women who have left him in the past. When Kowalsky spends time and oxygen collecting the corpse of their colleague (spoiler alert #1), he is portrayed as thoughtful and heroically sentimental; when Ryan wants to try to save the still-living Kowalsky, she is reprimanded for not being able to let go. Kowalsky never falters in his level-headedness. The only gesture made towards the male lead’s own vulnerability is the confession that he, too, was nauseous during his first space mission, a comment made in order to comfort Stone.

Perhaps the most embarrassing scene, to this effect, is when Ryan randomly pushes buttons on a control board, saying “inny-meeny-miny-moe;” she may be a brilliant engineer—although we never really know what her research is about—but she is reduced to guesswork and plain luck. Whereas earlier in the film, she is unable to concentrate as music plays in the background (while she uploads data from the technology that she has been brought on the mission as its specialist to operate, I might add), later, she passionately and quickly operates a machine she knows nothing about, pushing buttons while speaking of her daughter’s death as a final gesture of letting her go. It's as if her shirking of mourning here propels her mental activity and allows her to finally “man up” enough to handle the machinery of NASA.

It gets worse. Even in outer space, where there is supposed silence and peace of mind (according to Clooney’s character), Ryan gets grilled about her lack of a love life. She confesses, almost apologetically: “I just go to work and drive.” She is “checked out” of life (read: full-fledged normative Western womanhood). This type of questioning is grossly reminiscent of the kind that today’s online dating forums and reality TV shows routinely catapult at unmarried women who have chosen to pursue careers. Here, the pathologizing of the figure of the workingwoman as a workaholic and failed mother continues, masked by the gorgeous cinematography and impressive display of technical realism.

To add salt to the wound, Bullock appears in skin-tight tank top and short shorts (astronauts actually wear full-body space underwear, a full body, long-sleeve suit with built-in cooling and ventilation tubes), both wet and dry, throughout the film, as if to remind us that we shouldn’t read too much into her position as heroic protagonist. Like the magnificent scenery, she is really just there to be seen, whereas, Clooney, arguably is there to be heard: more often than not, we see Bullock’s panicked face, and hear Clooney’s calm and soothing male voice.

This is about selling movie tickets, of course, which the film does and will do wonderfully. But herein lies a wasted opportunity to sell tickets and also produce an equally compelling and inspiring narrative.

In reality the film follows a predictably conventional story: an emotionally wounded woman aided by an unfailingly levelheaded man—so invincible he actually comes back from the dead to save her, spoiler alert #2—struggles to survive against all odds. To be fair, it is Ryan who lives to tell the tale (final spoiler alert). She pulls it off, but to what world does she return?

Gender binaries and cliches aside, what is perhaps most surprisingly disappointing about Gravity is the disservice it does to the genre of science fiction. The impulse to compare the epic-ness of this movie to visually stunning films set in space, such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, should be tempered beyond their shared technical prowess. The sixties' era depiction of women in 2001 may be just as small-minded, but at least the film imagines and proposes exciting new technology for future minds (you can see a prototype design for the i-pad in 1968!) while delving into the philosophical and ethical implications of the growing inter-dependency of humans and machines. It is the combination of innovative dialogue, concepts, and groundbreaking cinematography in Kubrick’s film that has made it a bar of achievement. By such standards, Gravity should not be considered an “instant classic;” it is not even a sci-fi film (if we would like to continue to characterize sci-fi by its attempt to grapple with philosophical questions and mobilize new concepts of social exchange between unlikely interlocutors). Gravity is a Hollywood adventure/suspense flick trussed up with the appeal that scenic views from outer space, special effects, and mainstream white femininity and masculinity offers to mass audiences.

So, yes, the meaning of the title “gravity” alludes to a grave and gloomy context. But for those of us willing to look beyond the beautiful shots of stars and tantalizing blue planet earth below, what is weighty about the film is much closer to home and just as scary.