Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity: Will George Clooney and Sandra Bullock make us love space movies again?

Can Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity Rekindle Our Love of Space-Based Storytelling?

Can Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity Rekindle Our Love of Space-Based Storytelling?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 3 2013 1:39 PM

The Forgotten Frontier

Can Gravity rekindle our love of space-based storytelling?

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Though Musgrave is active in the press and is something of a go-to for on-camera interviews about the space program, being in his presence is still slightly ethereal. The same person I was now conversing with in a Glendale conference room had been in orbit in his 60s, California a mere peripheral speck. Musgrave prefaced his remarks by saying he lived an isolated childhood and didn’t see many movies, though he was more than eager to relay his experiences working as a space consultant on Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (which features yet another spacewalk-gone-wrong; Tim Robbins goes butterfingers while lassoing a stray piece of equipment and coasts to his death, eyes glazed and body flambéed by the Red Planet).

I began our conversation by asking about a news item that had recently gone viral: Luca Parmitano, the first Italian spacewalker, had spoken publicly about feeling like a “goldfish in a fishbowl” when his helmet inexplicably filled with liquid during a routine EVA. The episode seemed to fulfill two primal nightmares—drowning and being lost in space—and was perhaps the most-discussed space-related news item this summer. I was surprised, though, when I read that this was the closest any spacewalk had come to catastrophe. “That’s true,” Musgrave said. “I’m massively, horribly proud of the spacewalking system. We’ve performed between 200 and 250 spacewalks with no problems.” Regardless of the sterling safety record, there must be some lingering sense of fear. “No fear at all,” Musgrave said with a mild shrug. “The statistics are heavily in your favor. Going out the door is simply performance; it’s an athletic event, a dance, pure choreography.” He stressed that the shuttle launch is by far the riskiest phase of any mission, a subject he didn’t take lightly, given the well-documented horrors of Challenger and Columbia—a subject filmmakers seem unwilling to touch.

Still from Stanley Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968.
Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968.

Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)/Stanley Kubrick Productions

But if spacewalks are so safe, so routine, is it galling that almost every depiction in movies ends in a worst-case scenario? “Not at all,” he said. “People want drama. I have no problem with people wanting a dramatic story.” I figured it was okay, then, to inquire into his personal favorite. “Well, 2001 is the standard. Movies before it didn’t catch the archetypal. The thing is, how do you touch people down deep?” Though Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke—himself a spacewalker of sorts, now that his DNA will be sent into orbit around the sun—asked bold, penetrating questions about the nature of exploration that still mystify viewers, their plot also hinged significantly on a spacewalk catastrophe. For all the inventive ways Kubrick depicted death—a bull ride on an A-bomb, Nicholson axing clairvoyants—a neurotic computer detaching an astronaut’s air tube and sending him spiraling into nothingness remains, to me, his most chilling.


It was also a masterpiece of craft. I connected with David Larson, who shared details from his research on a long-gestating documentary on the making of 2001. Kubrick hired Eugene’s Flying Ballet, an English company specializing in wirework for film and theatrical productions, to execute this highflying sequence, with famed stuntman Bill Weston occupying the spacesuit of Dr. Poole, the victim of HAL’s short circuit. According to Larson:

Weston was hung from the top of Stage 4 at MGM-British Studio in Borehamwood on two thin wires, with the 65mm camera filming up at him, so his body hid the wires. He also had an O2 canister with an air tube running up through the suit to the helmet, which only lasted around 20 minutes. The signal was a ‘Jesus on the cross’ position when the O2 was running out. During one take, the scaffolding used as a jumping-off platform was taking a long time to move away, [which cut] into the filming time. As Weston did the “Jesus” signal, Kubrick said, “Leave him up there, we just started.” Weston passed out and was lowered to the floor and revived. He told me in my interview with him that he went looking for Kubrick to “have at him,” but couldn't find him. The next day his trailer had a bottle of wine in it and his pay was raised, so he forgot about the incident.

Bottoms up! As a kid, I distinctly recall being tweaked by the high-wire recreation of the spacewalk from the film’s sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984), as part of the Universal Studios back lot tour. Two audience members were handpicked and suited up to pantomime the scene in 2010 where two astronauts float from a Russian ship to the original (and now abandoned) Discovery, which, coincidentally, had to be built from scratch, as Kubrick had ordered all of his 2001 models to be destroyed after filming, precisely to avoid this kind of thing.* (In a movie sequel that is the cinematic equivalent of Geraldo unearthing a few empty gin bottles in Al Capone’s vault, I contend that this spacewalk scene is pretty fetching.) The sound of John Lithgow hyperventilating was soon pumped into the Showcase Theater, and my 5-year-old mind couldn’t quite comprehend the prospect of dangling in space, Jupiter throbbing beneath your toes, regardless of the fact that this was merely a blue-screen shadow play off the 101 Freeway.

Throughout Gravity, I experienced that same childlike sense of fear and disorientation. When the picture ended and Alfonso Cuarón finally allowed me to exhale, I took a moment on the pier outside Chicago’s IMAX theater and caught up on 100 or so minutes of furloughed coughs, my lungs going all Lithgow. I’d been nursing a cough that kept my wife sleeping in the guest room for nearly a week: Gravity was the only effective suppressant thus far. I don’t know if it was my heart or a piece of 3-D space junk lodged in my throat, but either way I was oddly grateful. With spirits raised, the news later that night that the government shutdown was official, including the lion’s share of NASA activity, was like screeching back down to Earth. In the real world, the space program may be on partial lockdown. But on movie screens, the possibilities are still breathtaking.

Correction, Oct. 7, 2013: This article originally misstated that the astronauts in the film 2010: The Year We Make Contact traveled from the Discovery II to the original Discovery. They floated from a Russian ship. (Return to the corrected sentence)

James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has contributed to Grantland, the Atlantic, and Film Comment.