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Terror of nothing

In ‘Gravity’,space is as beautiful as it is harrowing.

Written by Jaideep Unudurti | Published: October 19, 2013 4:57:00 am

Critics talk about the “cinema of attractions”,the early phase of the art when people flocked to theatres to watch things like trains entering stations or horses galloping. This pure visual spectacle has always been an important component of films.

The new film,Gravity,directed by Alfonso Cuaron,starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney,draws on this appeal. From the breathtaking opening sequence,every image,every sequence is dripping with “grandeur”,as Tollywood calls it.

The plot is set in motion when a Russian missile test destroys an obsolete satellite. It creates a cloud of debris which hits other satellites,creating more debris and so on. This kind of collisional cascading,called the Kessler Syndrome after the NASA scientist who studied it,is a very real danger. The low-Earth-orbit (LEO) is densely cluttered with satellites,all of which are necessary for almost everything we do today. As communication satellites disintegrate in the film,Clooney’s character says,“Half of North America just lost their Facebook”.

The debris wave,in an incredible sequence propelled by Steven Price’s pounding score,shreds the space shuttle. Clooney and Bullock are the sole survivors. Their only hope — use Clooney’s jet-pack enabled suit to reach the safety of the International Space Station.

The theme of astronauts adrift is a staple of science fiction. One of Ray Bradbury’s famous stories is a dialogue between astronauts who are drifting apart and dying slowly as the air runs out. True to Bradbury’s talent for welding the schmaltz with the profound,the astronaut is burned alive as he falls through the atmosphere — but becomes a “falling star” on which a child makes a wish.

In real life,Alexei Leonov,after completing the first ever spacewalk,was unable to re-enter his craft. His suit had swollen up,leaving him unable to fit into the airlock. With his suit overheating,Leonov gambled by using a valve to vent some of the air from it and get in.

Leaping about from one spaceship to another has also been a Hollywood favourite; similar heroics were performed by Tim Robbins and company in Brian de Palma’s Mission To Mars. These were the dangers of exploration — honourable dangers,to be met with a sense of pride. Space was a frontier,a place of exploration,a mythical place invested with the dreams and fears of humanity.

Cuaron,however,takes a different tack. He seems to question the entire basis of humankind’s attempts to leave the planet. The planet is our mother,stay close,seems to be his refrain. Space is too scary. Again,the essential terror of space has been a deep vein running through the genre. The darkness outside the spacecraft is a mirror to the darkness within. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had that famous shot where Frank Poole’s body drifts into the void,tumbling into nothingness. In low-Earth-orbit,no one can hear you scream.

Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke understood that space makes you realise how insignificant you are. The real threat is not monsters from the deep. The chill of isolation gets you long before the vacuum or the hard radiation can. The threat is not that we will encounter aliens,but that we will encounter nothing. Nothing in all directions — forever.

“In a universe whose size is beyond human imagining,where our world floats like a dust mote in the void of night,men have grown inconceivably lonely,” wrote essayist Loren Eiseley. Centuries earlier,the mathematician and physicist,Blaise Pascal,had said the same: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”.

Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky made Solaris as a kind of aesthetic response to 2001. Despite its visionary brilliance,I feel that it fails to “get” the original Stanislaw Lem novel. Lem was trying to get to the very essence of what it is to be alive,what it is to truly understand. He wrote later that his goal was to create a vision that “cannot be reduced to human concepts,ideas or images” — a typical goal of a genre that rewards the imagination over everything else. Tarkovsky replaces this with a fairly banal,vaguely spiritual message clothed in a hauntingly brilliant form.

Similarly,critic Gary Westfahl points out that Cuaron might be making an argument that humanity should be dedicated to preserving the “mother”,Earth,and abandon space all together. If that was his message,I would imagine it to be a failure. The film is too good for its own good,as it were,the sheer spectacle triumphing over this rather banal message. Space,as Cuaron shows it,is terrifying,but it is too beautiful to be left alone.

As a final coda,the odd takeaway I got from the film is that Soviet technology is the best. The humble Soyuz spacecraft,whose design has remained essentially unchanged since Yuri Gagarin rode a prototype into immortality,is the real star of the show. So when you watch,raise a toast to the unsung hero of space exploration,the Russian designer,Sergei Korolev.

Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer

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