The trailer for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity opens with a bang. We hear the screech of metal on metal; the cries of distraught astronauts; the drone of a Houston that no longer copies. It is only in the closing image of a lone figure tumbling away into the gloom that the debt of this film to the sci-fi tradition becomes apparent. The shrinking speck of white on black could be captioned by Ridley Scott’s famous tagline: “In space no one can hear you scream.”
Certainly, Cuarón knows this to be true. His picture has stayed faithful to the silent reality of space, in spite of Warner Bros deeming it necessary to overlay its promotional material with the crude explosions and eruptions of your average Tom Cruise vehicle. It is a pity really, for much of the effectiveness of cinematic space disasters is drawn from the helplessness they evoke. In a gravity-free zone, there is no stability, no foothold, nothing.
What comes to mind in particular, is the scene of the astronaut Frank’s death in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Even before the moon-landings, Kubrick’s vision of space was frighteningly accurate. The whole film plays out at an agonizingly slow pace, with the spaceships lazily rotating, as if in a ballet, to Strauss’ The Blue Danube. There are single shots that last for minutes of the Discovery craft moving through the endless black of the galaxy, accompanied only by quiet. It is little wonder that some people suspected that Kubrick had helped the American government to stage the moon-landings: his notion of the universe as terrifyingly dull was almost anti-cinematic in its accuracy.
That is not to say that 2001 is a boring film. Quite the opposite: its resistance of the conventional tropes of the thriller allows Kubrick to build an atmosphere that is crushingly claustrophobic. He refuses to rush, or to succumb to the pitfalls of predictable plotting. The ostensible villain, HAL, is a fascinating and ambiguous vision of computer potential. His soothing, androgynous tones later inspired Anthony Hopkins’ depiction of Hannibal Lecter and find a modern echo in the voice of Apple’s Siri. On the other hand, the astronauts themselves barely qualify as characters, and it is with an unsettling detachment that we watch Frank spin off into the ether.
This scene is the one that finds common ground with Cuarón’s Gravity. The trailer for the later film spends a lot of time closing in on Sandra Bullock’s Dr Ryan Stone as she careens around the debris of the spaceship. George Clooney’s voice can be heard repeating the command, “You need to detach!” This might apply to the camera as well as the astronaut: the most chilling frame of the whole trailer is at the final moment of dislocation, when the motionless lens allows Bullock to spin away out of reach. With a similar distancing, the cold mechanical eye of Kubrick’s camera watched Frank tumble away from the Discovery, eaten up by the silence of the future in 1968. It is this terrible isolation, both on and off-screen, that Kubrick envisioned so powerfully with his space epic. The comfortable pull of gravity is not there for them or us when the camera loses sight of its targets.
So it will be interesting to see how much has changed in the last 45 years when Gravity hits our screens. With the kinds of special effects seen in films like Avatar and The Life of Pi, we might imagine that Cuarón’s film will be a world away from Kubrick’s. Yet the promotional poster bears a striking resemblance to the tight box of an image released for 2001 all those years ago. Cuarón may have realized that what Kubrick got right with Space Odyssey was the universe’s minimalism—for all its space, there is no room to breathe.