Gravity: Life in “Space” is Impossible (spoilers)

Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” is an unnerving roller coaster ride through an eerie, psychologically-intelligent dream space.  The film, deservedly hailed as a technological masterpiece, is also a hidden psychological gem.

The film opens in space with a pan across Earth and the gentle hum of voices across a radio.  Immediately, the atmosphere envelopes us.  Cuaron lures us into a sedative and inquisitive state of mind, as we sink deeply into our chairs and our eyes sink deeply into the screen.  The voices are that of Houston’s Mission Control (Ed Harris), Mission Specialist, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney).  This is Stone and Kowalskis’ final spacewalk and all goes according to plan — for a short time.

Satellite debris from an accidental Russian missile strike blast their space shuttle and launch a terrified Dr. Stone spiraling into nothingness — leaving her both disconnected visually and audibly from help; this is one of many moments in the movie where we experience the vivid nightmare these characters endure.

We soon learn that Stone sustains several nightmares, and here is where Cuaron introduces the brilliant psychological component.  After Kowalski manages to rescue Stone, she confides in him that some time ago, her daughter suddenly died.  She describes to Stone that ever since her daughter’s death, she robotically floats through life; she goes to work, she leaves work, and she drives — destination-less.  Her experience in space is a metaphor for her reality on Earth.  On Earth, she is ”lost in space,” her feet hovering above the ground as she drifts through her days without any connection to people or her surroundings.  She does not maintain any close relationship and it is clear that she either has not communicated her pain to anyone or she has tried but believes that nobody can truly hear or understand her.  This is captured late in the film when she superficially connects, through radio, with a Chinese speaking man on Earth who minimally understands her.  Here, Cuaron suggests that this man represents, to Stone, the people on Earth in that she feels unable to communicate her suffering to them.  In space, there is no communication.  In the opening scene, a caption announces, “Life in space is impossible.”  It is inconceivable to live ”life in space” as Stone is, drifting about, disconnected, and unable to experience necessary validation.

As the movie continues, we watch Kowalski provide that requisite validation, thus bringing Stone “out of space” and back onto solid ground.  He listens to her, facilitates her level of comfort with him with his charming personality, and continuously demonstrates confidence in her.  This theme is most beautifully captured late in the film when Stone contemplates suicide.  Just as she begins to drift even further from life, Kowalski appears and reflects the pain Stone must feel with respect to the her daughter’s death.  ”That’s the the hardest thing anyone ever has to deal with,” he contends.  ”Gravity” sublimely captures the healing relationship.

Cuaron brilliantly reflects the potent impact of the healing relationship on an individual in how he shows Stone’s character evolve from an insecure, wandering soul to a confident, grounded individual.  He peppers this concept throughout the movie in various metaphorical images.  Kowalski urges Stone that, in order for her to survive, she must detach herself from the cord that connects the two; she needs to let go.  When she does ultimately let go, and essentially detach herself from “the umbilical cord” connecting her to Kowalsi — her to her lost child — she enters a space Hubble, where she curls up into a fetal position: a human, reborn, with new life.  At the end of the film, too, we are reminded of this theme.  When she ultimately battles back to Earth, her ship dives into a body of water.  As she swims to the surface, a frog swims besides her for a moment.  She is the frog; while she previously was a tadpole, unable to stand on solid ground, she is now an evolved frog, able to plant her feet firmly. For the first time in many years, Stone experiences the effects of gravity.

Many of us look for a movie that profoundly stimulates all of our senses.  ”Gravity” is that film.  Our eyes and ears are consistently drawn to the surreal atmosphere and haunting soundtrack.  We experience an alternating profound sense of suspense, terror, sadness, fear, and hope.  Our mind is energized by an eloquent display of the therapeutic relationship’s effect on an individual’s tortured mind.  With respect to the films from the past several years, I felt analogous to Stone’s character, prior to her transformation.  After witnessing “Gravity,” I feel much more like the frog.

Contagion

Rating: * * * *

We condition ourselves to buy into this reality we created.  We tell ourselves we need our jobs.  We tell ourselves we need our money.  We tell ourselves to keep doing and going.  Perhaps, we wrap our lives up in this tight blanket to protect from the frightening reality: people live and die and everything in between is survival.  Contagion begins with the blanket aggressively torn from us.  We are left with relentless tension and distress, as well as profound and consistent fascination as we learn the reactions we are likely to have when faced with our almost inconceivable mortality.

Mitch (Matt Damon) is burdened with the sudden and bewildering successive deaths of his wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) and their son.  The doctors are just as baffled as he is as to what happened to his loved ones, as well as why more and more are quietly being plucked from the Earth by the same mysterious ailment.  Only a few days pass until we realize that this is something novel, terrifying, and very potentially the end of everything.  Recall, in high school math, squaring numbers several times over?  That knowledge elucidates the potent reality in which these characters are trapped.

Mitch grasps onto the life of his remaining daughter and the two navigate through life, surviving as that number squares time and time again.  In an interesting subplot, Alan (Jude Law), a free-lance reporter, investigates whether the government is hiding a cure for the drug.  He believes that the government and the pharmaceutical companies have their talons woven tightly around each other, in the hopes of gaining financial profit.  This is meant to reference many of the claims that a cure for AIDS exists, and arguably the more realistic claims that certain disorders and ailments appear to sporadically pop up alongside some new expensive medication.  The movie addresses this material in an open-ended and rather realistic manner.

What is among the most admirable traits in Contagion is this stark realism it conveys.  Just as we might deny poor eating habits until the day we die of a nutritional-related disease, in Contagion, we watch as quite a few people continue to go about their days as if the blanket is still keeping them snug.  The disease is overtly spreading, but we witness people touching surfaces felt a thousand times over.  A young girl understandably yearns to see her boyfriend, but, despite the fact that he could be infected, she naively acts on her desires.  We see that, in a line of people, all masked and hopefully protected from spreading and contracting the disease, one man drops something and another man kneels down and hands the man his lost item.  This speaks to how we tend to protect ourselves from the truth of our mortality; even when our lives are very clearly in danger, we may still cling to the worlds we created for ourselves — whimsically forgetting that the world is long gone.

The film also suggests that times of desperation and survival can also lead us down a path to act in ways incongruent with our previous selves.  When we are in imminent danger, we also have the capacity to compromise our morals and our professionalism.  One of the more fascinating and thought-provoking elements of the film occurs when a main character remains sturdily professional, and then, as he recognizes his world is ripping apart at the seems, he appears to allow the blanket to slide off of him as he does not do what he is meant to do for the sake of his career, but does what he thinks is right.  Whether you think it is right as the viewer is another story, but you could certainly have an interesting conversation about this character and his decision once the film allows you to breathe again.

Also interesting is Contagion’s depiction of how the majority of us would likely behave in times of survival.  The horrifying truth is when you pair desperate times with a loss of accountability, what you are left with could be morally incomprehensible acts.  When our survival is threatened, we possess the capability to act with total disregard for consequences.

It is not enough to say this movie is so efficient simply because it presents many questions and interesting ideas with no easy answers.  It is only fair to also mention director Steven Soderbergh’s remarkable stylish film-making style.  We can only expect this out of the man who created Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven, and The Informant! Here, the style most resembles that in Ocean’s Eleven, where engaging — and sometimes haunting — visuals and music fill the screen, and dialogue sometimes takes a deserved back seat.  While it seems unusual to pair the style seen in that film with the subject matter in this film, it works exceptionally well.

An Ambitious Failure

FUNNY PEOPLE

Rating: * 1/2

Really, “Funny People” is two movies trying desperately to merge themselves into one entity — unsuccessfully…very unsuccessfully. Approximately the first hour and forty minutes consists of generally intelligent and hilarious material. Then, there are about forty minutes of more themes, more characters, too many surprised reactions, and a few too many cute songs and adorable montages. There is a very serious disconnect between the first two-thirds of the movie and the last third. I commend this movie for being ambitious and trying to make itself into an epic comedy. I do not, however, laud it for its uneasy blend into the film’s last act and the odd, real centerpiece of the movie: hypermasculinity.

Adam Sandler plays famous actor, George Simmons, whose movies parallel those played by Sandler in real life. Early in the film, Simmons learns of his untimely fate. Despite being widely loved, generally by immature audiences, Simmons lives an extremely isolated existence; he has no friends. He befriends neophyte comedian Ira Wright, played by the incomparable Seth Rogan. Wright is ecstatic that Simmons, the loved comedian and actor, commends him for his comedic talents and elects him as a his friend. Initially, Simons seeks out Ira not as a friend, but as a writer who can write his material for him while he is stuck in a depressed rut, thinking only of gloom and death. It is all business, until the movie reveals that there is actually some intelligent writing guiding it.

Profound themes are soon revealed and handled in an reasonably astute way. Simmons, in a potential unconscious way, sought out Ira as a friend, as the one person he could confide in in his final days. A friendship forms between the two that feels just as awkward and genuine as any friendship I have known. One of Ira’s friends, Mark Taylor Jackson, played by Jason Schwartzman, appears entirely egotistical and one-dimensional, but as time passes, more depth to his character is revealed; plenty of movies settle for stereotypical one-note characters, but “Funny People” works adequately at uncovering the truth about people: there are many different sides to all of us. I also appreciated the quiet, calmly building relationship between Wright and female love interest, Daisy, played by Aubrey Plaza. Much of this movie, in fact, feels just like this relationship: sincere, sweet, uncalculated, and reminiscent of real life.

The writing here very perceptively observes two aspects of life. First, life is unpredictable. Death reveals itself suddenly and friendships surface unexpectedly. The writing captures this in that there are very rarely transitions from comedic scenes to very grave scenes. There is a certain style to the manner in which the movie bounces about from one extreme to the other — a sort of calculated chaos.

Second, the film reveals a very discerning theme: unfortunately, many of us will wait until the end of our existence to disengage from isolation and embrace our true nature. We are social creatures and the film suggests that we can too easily get wrapped up in ourselves to be concerned with our family and friends. It also suggests that men, in an attempt to protect their masculinity, often hide their true love for their sons. Why must we wait until the end to admit that we severely want others around us and have wanted this for all of our lives?

Initially, this is smart stuff. Ultimately, though, there is just too much of a focus on this hypermasculine theme. There are about fifty too many jokes about penises. This movie seems like one big attempt to cover up some serious homophobia. Penises are funny, but I am not sure they are funny enough to laugh at for two hours and twenty minutes — especially when those last forty minutes are pretty intolerable.

The last third of this film is a serious miscalculation. The movie has covered just enough when it delved into death, isolation, friendship, and egotism. Then, it tries to dive right into relationships, marriage, and divorce. Forty minutes pass and more of the same. The movie overstays its welcome by at least a half hour and for no real reason. There was enough material in the first two-thirds to constitute a thorough, intelligent, funny, and engaging movie. At the end of the movie, however, there is enough material to make audiences extremely frustrated, angry, exhausted, and potentially suicidal. Perhaps if less time were spent finding the countless ways that penises are funny, then more time could have been devoted to tightening up the script.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

PERSONA

Rating: * * * *

It seems that director David Lynch had a bit of inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” before he lifted his paintbrush to the canvas to create the surrealist masterpiece, “Mulholland Drive.” On the surface, Bergman told the story of two women, both problem-stricken, and in desperate need of emotional catharsis. Thirty-five years later, a superficial look at Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” suggests that he too presents a story of two conflicted women. More likely, however, these are stories of a single woman as she struggles with a lifelong battle of grief, regret, shame, failure, love, love lost, sexual and personal identity issues, and so on. One central difference is that Bergman’s work is missing a certain hypnotist cowboy, dumpster monster, and a deformed mafia man who makes a habit of sitting in a dark, awfully creepy room behind a glass window. Instead of focusing so heavily on dream and fantasy, Bergman’s “Persona” is centrally concerned with humanity, the contents of our minds, and the path that leads to our mind’s degradation. Interesting that a movie can be so dense, so passionately experimental and obscure, yet appeal to the most obstinate Hollywood-style film goers.

We begin with several startling images, some of which are an erect penis, a nail being hammered into a hand, and several bodies at a morgue resting quietly — for a time. While it is hard to imagine these images could relate to the film’s broader themes, they do.

These broader themes start to reveal themselves soon after we meet the focus of the film: two women: Elizabeth (Liv Ullmann) and nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson). Elizabeth, a reputable actress, stops speaking in the middle of a performance. Psychiatrists are baffled. One of the psychiatrists instructs nurse Alma to care for Elizabeth at her summer home. It is an isolated place on the water, unusually quiet and rather beautiful. It is a place where, if all goes to plan, nurse Alma can assist Elizabeth, Elizabeth can get that much needed rest, and her ability to talk will return in no time. In a movie with the above-mentioned dark and disturbing images and a consistent symphony of unsettling music and chiaroscuro lighting, I do not think it would be giving anything away to say that things do not evolve in such a peachy way.

The film progresses and Alma talks and Elizabeth listens. Alma reveals that this is one of the first times anyone has truly ever listened to her and really, cared for her. Her affection for Elizabeth grows, but Elizabeth does not appear to get any better. In fact, we find that the more Alma talks,  she reveals that she has tremendous troubles of her own. In particular, she describes one discontent, a vivid, erotic recount that has haunted her many years and will likely haunt you as well. Similarly, it seems that the silent Elizabeth is plagued by disturbing images of violence on television and mysterious situations from her personal life.

We see two women becoming one. Two women with similar, painful memories. Two women who, as Alma comments, look remarkably similar. This is no coincidence.

Really, we are all similar. Certainly individual variation exists, but, in general, we are negative thinkers. Also, our minds work in similar ways. There is a reason the expression, “a picture is worth a thousand words” exists. It is because our minds have the ability to pick apart a single image and separate it into a tremendous amount of discrete parts to analyze. Now, consider what our minds do with a horrific situation that we would just much rather put in the past. Our minds do not let us. Instead, we are forced to view the negative situation over and over in all of its individual components. It is no surprise that mental illness is so prevalent in society and in such films as “Persona” and “Mulholland Drive.”

“Persona” captures the fragmented nature of the disturbed mind. The film is set on a beach, isolated from the rest of society, just like someone who does not speak and hides his/her emotions, feelings, and situations in his/her mind and away from the world. A good metaphor for a dissociated mind is a beach covered in tons of broken rocks strewn about. The dark, mysterious lighting and music mirrors the state of the main characters’ minds and really — to a degree — all of our minds. We are all agonized by our mind at some point and talking about our plaguing concerns with another human being is the preferred remedy for healing our mind. We just have to realize that even those we talk to are haunted by issues of their own. We all are.