The first time I saw a trailer for Gravity, which featured Sandra Bullock tumbling through space in a NASA spacesuit and audibly panicking, I thought I wouldn’t be able to sit through the movie.
Two of my bigger (admittedly unrealistic fears) are deep space and deep sea. If I think too hard about the darkness, the vastness, and the sheer solitude of either, it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It’s a fear that’s marked by reverence; both are powerful, beautiful, and significant entities that are no match for a mere human. To make an error in either setting is certain death.
So it was with terror that I watched Open Water 10 years ago, the true story of a couple who goes scuba-diving in the Bahamas only to pop their heads above the water’s surface and discover their guide boat accidentally took off without them. It’s 80 minutes of white knuckle, “what would I do in that situation” film-watching that leaves you with a visceral, heavy sense of dread.
To me, Gravity bottled those same feelings and launched them into orbit.
Gravity is beautifully shot; the first 13 minutes are filmed in one long take, free of edits, as the camera rolls and flips in weightless orbit. The 3-D cinematography (and yes, see it in 3-D if you can) makes you feel like you’re floating just beyond Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, a silent crew member to witness the terror. It looks and feels like a riveting documentary. As director Alfonso Cuaron told New York Magazine, “We wanted it to almost have the experience of an IMAX documentary gone wrong.” Mission accomplished.
A thought occurred to me as I left the theater. I like to watch for shooting stars on camping trips; it’s a bit of a family tradition (and perhaps my fear of deep space was born during those silent, contemplative stretches of star-gazing). But sometimes, the smattering of constellations can feel earthly, like a pretty ceiling that’s not really so far off.
On those stargazing nights, we always call out the satellites that trek across the sky, their trajectory slow and measured. The satellites were a consolation prize of sorts, an “also-ran” that were no match for the brilliant white streaks of shooting stars. I’d never given more than a passing thought to those manmade structures in silent, faithful orbit: what they looked like, who maintained them, who might be up there that very instant in such unforgiving terrain.
Gravity whisks you from the comfort of our fair planet—from that cushy lawn chair around the campfire—and deposits you in space with one truth: you’re not getting back to earth unless the characters do too, or the movie ends. No spoiler there. For two hours, your life depends on those trusty satellites and the men and women who built them.
Even with its innumerable hardships and capacity for cruelty, our blue-and-green orb has never looked quite so appealing as when you’re gazing down upon it from space with no return ticket home.