A truly serendipitous cinematic convergence this past weekend meant seeing both Alfonso Cuaron’s modern classic Gravity followed shortly by Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork 2001: A Space Odyssey in 35 mm as part of the Milwaukee Film Festival. Seeing these two films in such short order made their similarities and differences incredibly stark in my mind. They are two magnificent visions from two very different eras that take a very similar path toward very dissimilar ends, both leaving you agape with their deft combination of technical mastery and compositional beauty.
Born in the heart of the space race, out of a overwhelming curiosity towards extraterrestrial life, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey took the format and technique that ruled the day (utilizing the Cinerama format as well as 70 mm prints in an effort to up the spectacle and draw audiences alongside the historical epic format allowing for an overture, intermission and exit music in the proud tradition of other epic films of the era such as Sound of Music, Grand Prix or Doctor Zhivago) and married it to a beautifully inquisitive philosophical mindset that allowed for the banal (most dialogue throughout the film is small talk), nerve-wracking and transcendental to all coexist in the same film. Kubrick draws out the balletic nature of space travel, using pieces like Strauss’ Also Spake Zarathustra and Blue Danube Waltz to highlight the balletic movement and ethereal beauty inherent in space travel.
Remember that the moon landing took place the following year, and also that conspiracy theorists have long held that it was faked by Kubrick himself, due in no small part to his remarkable ability to take the fantastic and ground it in the sort of bureaucratic minutiae that are part of our travel here on Earth. It’s important to keep that time frame in mind, as this is a movie drunk on the possibilities of space travel, a film where an object extraterrestrial in origin is responsible for the great seismic shifts of our evolutionary process. Space isn’t just a vast new terrain for us to conquer, it’s the pathway towards evolving beyond our current circumstances. It’s no mistake that the advanced life forms place astronaut David Bowman in a familiar, decadently materialistic setting in which to live out his final days before transcending the material plane and becoming the now-famous ‘Star Baby’.
Cuaron’s vision of space in Gravity is no less beautiful, but instead of utilizing the setting for a sort of poetic reverie like Kubrick does, Cuaron instead focuses on the isolation of space, allowing for beautiful vistas to be glimpsed in the reflection of helmets as our two panicked leads (our only two characters, really) desperately try to find a way home in the aftermath of a satellite collision above Earth. It wouldn’t be too big of a leap to imagine Cuaron seeing his picture as a sort of spiritual successor to/humanist refutation of the memorable sequence in 2001 where HAL 9000 sends astronaut Frank Poole hurtling into the void set to a soundtrack of deafening silence. And what is 3-D but a more elegant solution to the immersive aspirations of gimmicks such as Cinerama from decades past?
However, where Kubrick aimed to graft the metaphysical and philosophical onto the epic blockbuster mold, Cuaron is perfecting the summer blockbuster formula with his brilliant filmmaking, using a deceptively simple story to set up an 80-odd minute exercise in white-knuckle tension. Using the tricks he’s honed in previous films (an opening 15-minute shot would appear to drop the mic on his own amazing long takes from the fantastic Children of Men), Cuaron makes you believe you are there in ways that no space-based film has ever done before. And he drops the soundtrack at key points to highlight the isolation of outer space, leaving you only with the panicked breathing and desperate small talk of its two stranded astronauts. Given the apparent abandonment of manned space travel by our governmental bodies (leaving the job up to robots and high-tech cameras to do any further exploration for us is a bit like Ansel Adams having set up a motion sensor camera and going home to watch Men In Black II), it should also come as no surprise that the goal of these space travelers isn’t to push forward into the unknown, but retreat home to Earth. In a very real sense, Gravity is like the negative image of 2001. It starts out in space with an end goal of Earth whereas Kubrick started us stuck on Earth only to chart a course for the stars.
In the end, you have two brilliant space epics pointing in opposite directions, grappling with similar notions (capturing both the intense isolation and awe-inspiring beauty of space) with wildly different end games in mind (Kubrick taking the bloated chassis of the film epic and imbuing it with a sense of contemplative wonder, Cuaron stripping the popcorn thriller of all needless exposition and fat to create the ultimate exercise in tension, leaving little room for the contemplative). We’re lucky to live in a world where two such movies can not only be seen (2001 in 35 mm was a humbling movie going experience), but appear to exist in dialogue with one another. However, it seems sadly apropos that the ethos of moving forward and evolving the form that existed in a 1968 masterpiece has been replaced by a refinement of the blockbuster formula in 2013.