By Dylan Lemert
“In space, no one can hear you scream.”
That was the tagline for the film “Alien” when it debuted in 1979. Considered one of the greatest science fiction franchises of all time, the “Alien” series capitalizes on what it means to be a stranger in a strange land—outer space—and the wild terrors that await us there.
However, Alfonoso Cuarón’s recently-released “Gravity” has me second-guessing whether the “Alien” films really needed to include those pesky (and hungry) extraterrestrials to succeed at being terrifying.
“Gravity” doesn’t have aliens, it’s not set in a vaguely dismal future, and there’s not a whole lot of interpersonal tension. In fact, it turns out there’s not much of anything up above the surly bonds of Earth besides a little floating space debris. No wind, no sound, and most pressingly, no gravity.
And that’s ultimately what makes “Gravity” so creepy, so cold and so discomforting; not the active presence of a villain like the salivating, two-mouthed xenomorph from “Alien,” but rather the absolute absence of anything at all.
Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a budding mission specialist assigned to fixing the Hubble Telescope when things go horribly, miserably wrong. Wayward debris from a Russian missile strike juts through the team’s shuttle like a cloud of bullets, leaving Stone adrift in the blackness of space.
The moments after this initial chaos are some of the film’s most haunting (yet visually beautiful) scenes, as we watch Stone spin violently away from earth, away from her decimated ship and any surviving crewmembers, into emptiness.
This, to me, is why “Gravity” is a philosophically more frightening movie than “Alien,” and why it’s probably scarier than a lot of other horror movies I’ve seen, too. Because in Cuarón’s film, your screams won’t be heard not only because sound doesn’t travel in space, but also because you’re floating helplessly 200 miles above the nearest living soul.
It’s this ensuing feeling of claustrophobic-like isolation—even despite the backdrop of our infinitely large universe—that proves equally arresting for the viewer as it is desperate for Stone. Without a ship and with oxygen running low, this isolation tears at the fabric of Stone’s already-traumatized psyche, conjuring up long-buried memories of her past.
Much credit must be given to Cuarón, who despite making a film obsessed with visual detail and spectacular special effects is also able to say some quite profound things about human nature, about the monsters that gnaw at us from the inside even as the world around us gets torn apart by projectile space rubble.
Ultimately, “Gravity” results in being one of those rare films that is pretty to look at while also offering a lot to ponder, and you’ve got to wonder how a movie set in the dark void of space has more to say about humanity than many of this year’s Earth-bound actioners.
Then again, maybe what separates “Gravity” from the rest of the pack is that it’s willing to spend a little more time above the clouds than most, gathering a bird’s-eye perspective on what it really means to be human—before landing safely as one of 2013’s best films.