It’s good to see a film succeed hugely that doesn’t feature one concussive explosion after another or giant monsters fighting giant robots. In some ways I’m as pleased as anyone that over the past month Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” has become a cultural phenomenon and almost surely a front-runner for Best Picture at next year’s Oscars. But while it is a smart, pulse-pounding thriller that raises the bar of what can be accomplished on film from a technical perspective, some of the sexual and racial politics of “Gravity” are, I’m sorry to say, deeply problematic.
On the surface, “Gravity” is simple enough. It is the story of two astronauts who become stranded in space after debris strikes the space shuttle in orbit. Sandra Bullock plays mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone, who is traveling into space for the first time, and George Clooney is veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski; there is little else in the film besides these two characters, which I concede is a laudable risk for a major studio to take. Upon closer inspection however, we start to realize that despite its stunning visuals “Gravity” is merely a vehicle for the familiar, tired woman-in-peril tropes that provide the backbone to most Hollywood productions.
During a substantial portion of the film, Bullock is literally tied to Clooney and dragged around like property and even though she is brilliant enough to be drafted as an astronaut specifically because of her skills she still needs to be reassured about her situation by a man. A man in charge, of course, intruding on a woman’s agency and thoroughly confirming the oppressive patriarchal orthodoxy we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. Sandra Bullock, throughout “Gravity,” is little more than a terrified, incompetent little lamb, relegated to dwelling on her lost child (because of course women must be mothers to be fulfilled) rather than being the strong astronautrix she could have and should have been.
There are other problems as well. We all know that gravity itself (the law of physics, not the film) is horribly biased against overweight people. In many ways the film is as well, with a couple of attractive, fit actors cast in roles that could easily have gone to two 340-pound high school students who have spent most of their lives being bullied. That would’ve been the brave choice, the one that defied sizeist stereotypes. Then we have the enemy in the film: the “blackness” of space, threatening at all times to take the lives of these two lovely white people dressed head-to-toe in white. The racism is undeniable. At the close of the film, when Clooney and Bullock hold each other against the encroaching darkness, there isn’t a clearer representation of the fear of the loss of white privilege.
If I’m wrong about any of the specific plot points I apologize. Most of what happens in the film was relayed to me by my vegan lifestyle coach Steven-Anne, who informed me that I should under no circumstances give “Gravity” my bartered fair-trade Hacky Sacks precisely because of its racism, misogyny, indirect fat-shaming and potential use of offensive trigger words. I won’t say conclusively that no one should see this movie, only that I cannot in good conscience see it. Steven-Anne also informed me that, in zis opinion, “Gravity” has a strong anti-trans* message — in that there are no trans* people anywhere in the movie.
The true shame of this is that if you’re someone who enjoys science-fiction, your choices at the theater right now are “Gravity,” “Ender’s Game,” which is of course about a genocidal little boy (surprise) and was written by a notorious homophobe, or “Thor: The Dark World,” which is a masculine rape fantasy about an Aryan Superman whose girlfriend has an important job as an astrophysicist but who still needs to be rescued by the Great Man. (Again as well, we have the “Dark World” being the enemy that must be conquered by the valiant white saviors and, worse, a racist, sizeist commentary on the dangers of African-American elves.)
My advice if you’re looking for science-fiction is to stay home and watch 1972’s “Silent Running” for the 394th time while playing the soundtrack to “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” I personally plan to spend the weekend demanding to know why Patton Oswalt hasn’t spoken out against any of this.