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The Stakes of Space

Arts & Culture | October 21, 2013

Gravity, the new film by Alfonso Cuarón of Harry Potter and Children of Men fame, is one of the most terrifying movies in recent memory. This is mostly due to the impenetrability and all-encompassing quality of the foe—Space. Somehow, dying alone drifting through nothingness is scarier than an insane being or creature could be. What has earned Gravity’s universal appraisal is Cuarón’s ability to manipulate the universal fear of helplessness. We like thinking we have power and agency to protect ourselves, but it’s hard to be anything but humbled in the vast nothingness of Space. While Cuarón capitalizes on a normal viewer’s fear of the dark side of space, entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson have a different vision, exploring the possibility of “Space Cities” in the future. These bold plans for colonization serve to counteract our fear of helplessness, humbling Space in spite of its terrifying depiction in Cuarón’s Gravity.

Cuarón exploits the terror of space, forcing us to sacrifice our normal role as viewers and experience this harrowing journey with Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Despite the  suffocating tension within much of the film, it cannot help but be beautiful. The space setting allows Cuarón to play with light and angles in unconventional ways, producing gorgeous shots of Earth, the Aurora, and the stars. Earth serves as a constant backdrop throughout the film and we see the Aurora from above as opposed to the below. Both Bullock’s and Clooney’s characters drift up or into the cosmos, centered against a view of the stars without light pollution. Poetic, slow, and peaceful shots are juxtaposed with the franticness and violence that is central to the entire movie.

Cuarón has perfected the use of single shots, never cutting away from the action and, subsequently, never giving us a chance to breathe. Particularly breathtaking is the opening scene; satellite debris rips through the Hubble telescope as Bullock is sent spinning around on what seems to be a tilt-a-whirl from hell. The music has a hint of the fear-inducing strings of a horror movie, producing an overwhelming sense of dread in the viewer. The pacing of the film is tight and danger springs out at any moment we feel safe. Sudden transitions of coming dread—rather than the “gotcha” moments of horror films—puts us right back where we belong: on the edge of our seat. By mixing both the beautiful and the terrifying, Cuarón acknowledges how Space is full of serene awe in its cold and unsympathetic power.

Despite how daunting and overwhelming Space may seem, there is still a desire among some to explore beyond our little blue planet. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX both have long-term missions of sending people to colonize space. Some 500 people across the globe, all presumably part of the 1 percent, have signed up to become private astronauts with Virgin Galactic. SpaceX deems it necessary for the human race to colonize space because eventually Earth will be uninhabitable. Where Cuarón uses the infinity of space for terror, these companies use the same infinity as an appeal for excursion. It’s laughing in the face of danger. They take Cuarón’s pairing of terror and beauty and use it to show why it is worth it to explore, rather than to just survive. Only time will tell if humanity can summon the courage to conquer the vast nothingness of Space.