I was prepared to be stressed out by Gravity: you've seen the trailers, so you know what I mean. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are in space, and then disaster strikes, and they get spun away from their craft. Owing to a recurring nightmare I've had since I was a child in which roughly the same thing happens to me (sans, sadly, Clooney), I was wary.
And it was stressful. I gasped. I bit my nails. I even felt a little seasick once in a while. But what I hadn't expected was this: watching Gravity, especially in the quiet moments, I felt an overwhelming sense of . . . wonder.
Sitting there, wearing silly-looking 3D glasses, I felt awe—and not at mankind or its "indomitable spirit." It is admittedly cool that we figured out how to make suits that let us float above the surface of the planet, and that we can talk to people in Texas from outer space. It's also super cool that we made movie technology that lets us feel like we're doing all those things from the safety of a movie theater. But that wasn't what left me in the throes of wonder.
Pardon the pun: I felt my center of gravity shift. I was made uncomfortable.
One reason is simply its wow factor: Gravity is enormous, and gorgeous. It is a technical achievement, but doesn't flaunt its technical achievement-ness (unlike, say, Avatar), and it must—must—be seen on the biggest screen you can find. Even to viewers numbed by myriad space operas and superhero epics and whatnot, the sunrise over the planet's curve can provoke wonder of the "what is man that you are mindful of him?" variety.
But the movie isn't all wide, epic shots: the camera sneaks inside Bullock's helmet and forces us to feel her disorientation and panic. It's not just Bullock who's vulnerable and fallible—it's everyone in the audience, too. Along with her, I found myself thinking about life and death, and the planet we inhabit, and its dangerous beauty. And I thought about how weird and wonderful it is that we matter at all.
This is a good thing for me to feel, because too often, my center of gravity is myself. It's easy for me to imagine that my world should bend to my will. I want to be an irreplaceable, singular Person Of Influence. And I can pull off that illusion by casting a penumbra around me with Twitter and Facebook and all the rest.
Sometimes I find that my movie and television watching can feed this fantasy. To be sure, movies don't create the illusion in me: it's there whether or not I feed it. But the very nature of screens and most entertainment (what some media theorists call the "flattery of representation") can just make it worse. Here I am! I chose to watch this thing. I paid my money. Give me something I'll like.
So it was good, if a bit jarring, to feel myself shrink at the film's beginning, when I found myself floating above the surface of the earth for a little while in absolute silence. (Absolute silence: as if of one accord, everyone in the huge theater stopped their popcorn-munching and soda-slurping and, I think, stopped breathing entirely for that minute before the spacecraft came into view.)
This is why, if you're not seeing Gravity in IMAX 3D, you're definitely doing it wrong. Not because it's a thrill ride (nobody's having even a little bit of fun here: this story is a tragedy, not a triumph), but because without it I don't think you can get a sense of the bigness and smallness, something that's vital for Bullock's small but significant personal transformation. She has to learn that—though she's a celebrated scientist who's nursing her own personal tragedy—she, too, has lived with a misplaced center of gravity. (Nobody ever taught me to pray, she repeats, over and over: would that have helped reorient her?)
Gravity is not perfect. Director Alfonso Cuaron (who made the nearly-perfect Children of Men as well as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Y Tu Mama Tambien) misses his target here and there. It's trying for some visual metaphors—certainly birth and rebirth—that come off a bit too heavy-handed. Some of its script choices are either overly dramatic or stilted. (Then again, if I were Sandra Bullock, newbie space traveler, attempting to navigate some kind of supra-atmospheric obstacle course to get back down to my home planet, multiply oxygen-deprived and grieving and traumatized, I'd probably be muttering dramatic monologues, too, myself.)
And so here is the other way that Gravity might knock us around a bit: it shows, against type, a heroine who isn't a heroine at all. She's just a messed up person who might or might not make it out of this nightmare alive. She is no Ellen Ripley-like lone ranger superwoman. She won't show up on any lists of "best female characters." All she really has to cling to is the help of someone else. And that is what I tend to forget, too, when I get too inside myself: without others to yell at me and care for me and challenge me and pull me along, I'd turn narcissistic, inward-focused to a dangerous degree. If I'm centered in me, I spin into oblivion.
The chances of me ever going into outer space are basically zero (though if someone really needs a film critic up there for some reason, I'm all ears). But my center of gravity gets shifted into myself all too easily. And I both am discomfited and quieted by Gravity's attempts to disorient me, which is what art ought to do to us. May we find ourselves, falteringly, looking outward, again and again.
The characters in Gravity, being locked in a rather tense and stressful fight for survival, do swear; I counted only one f-bomb, but I might have missed something in the commotion. Another character sustains a rather gruesome head injury and dies (though there's not really any blood). One character speaks of losing a child. The rest of the PG-13 rating is on account of the intense scenes, and if you're watching it in IMAX 3D—and again, you should—then it could be a bit much, especially for young viewers. Also, people prone to motion sickness should bring along supplies, just in case.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She tweets at @alissamarie.