When Sandra Bullock undresses in Gravity, she reveals less a body than a machine. This is workflow cinema
In Gravity’s 90-plus minutes of screen time, Sandra Bullock’s body sheds hardly any fluid. Ninety minutes without vomiting. Ninety minutes without pissing, shitting, or breaking more than the lightest, most perfunctory sweat. Exceptions: a small spot of blood, easily forgotten, and a few tears, far more memorable. Bullock cries demurely, but she has to: Her face is just the backdrop for the scene’s real action. For as she cries, the invisible hands of a few hundred animators slowly peel each CGI tear off her face and launch the quivering orbs towards the audience — who are tempted, against all reason, to reach out and touch them.
Like many things in Alfonso Cuarón’s film, the airborne tears are both beautiful and inaccurate. “Tears wouldn’t float off of your eyes and face,” former astronaut Scott Parazynski explained when he fact-checked the film for New York Magazine’s blog. Tears would cling to Bullock's eyes and form pools around them. Surface tension in zero gravity is “the strongest force up there.” It can turn an astronaut’s body against her. As Parazynski says, “it would be scary if you were to lose your cookies in the middle of a space walk.” Your vomit would stay glued to your face; “you could actually be blinded.”
New astronauts often experience intense nausea while acclimating to zero gravity, and in the first few minutes of Gravity, Bullock’s character complains that she can hardly keep her lunch down. Yet she seems to forget her stomach the moment the plot sweeps her into a series of involuntary somersaults and leaps. Of all the troubles Bullock faces, her own body is rarely one of them. Like most action heroes, she’s immune to the baser functions that plague the rest of us. While we slip out of the theater to use the restroom, our onscreen proxy continues her struggles uninterrupted. This is a standard Hollywood omission. But in Gravity, it generates a glaring scientific error. After Bullock takes shelter in the International Space Station, she wiggles out of her heavy spacesuit to reveal what she wears underneath: not much.
“She would be wearing an adult diaper,” Cuarón admits. “Obviously, we chose not to do that.” Cuarón censored not only the diaper, but also the thick, insulated long underwear that clothe astronauts on space-walks. Why? “It’s a movie!” Some reviews offer formal justifications for Bullock’s bare skin: It makes her seem vulnerable and child-like; it helps along a few heavy-handed metaphors about rebirth. It’s also easy on the eyes. “She came out in this form-hugging Lycra underwear,” Parazynski told Vulture, “which I must say looked good.” When another astronaut, Chris Hadfield, complained about the underwear on Conan O’Brien, the late-night host lifted an eyebrow and made a joke of it: “I think Hollywood made the right call on that one.” Time’s Jeffery Kluger argued that some scientific inaccuracies are “beside the point” — especially when the scene in question serves up Bullock as “perfectly toned, perfectly lovely, zero-g eye candy.” In the postfeminist idiom of magazine journalism, it apparently reads as progressive to lavish praise on the physique of an accomplished 49-year-old woman. Better her than Her; at least Bullock has a body. “Her body was sick,” Juli Weiner wrote in Vanity Fair.
Film critics are perfectly capable of posing the standard, well-worn questions about the female body and the male gaze. The summer blockbuster Star Trek Into Darkness drew flack for its (far more ridiculous) underwear scene, as did Blue Is the Warmest Color for its pornified lesbian sex. But in both of these cases, the bodies we see onscreen are clearly meant to titillate. Bullock claims that this was not her or Cuarón’s intention. Her intense, pre-Gravity workout regimen was a means of getting into character, she argues: “I wanted to remove what she looked like as a woman, what reminded her of being feminine and motherly, just so that the body was a machine.” Indeed, the critics who praise her body don’t seem to lust after it so much as wish they possessed it. It is the achievement of a woman at the top of her career. Through a combination of hard work and the most up-to-date technology, Bullock appears to have beaten age. But it’s hard to find her body sexy, because one can't imagine touching her: She doesn’t look pliable, or even tangible.
Bodies in 3-D cinema appear to have volume but no mass. The 3-D body is hollow, a hologram; blood and guts don’t seem to animate it. Action films once made much of their protagonists’ pain. In Die Hard, Bruce Willis winced through every bruise and blow while maintaining his ironic cool. By contrast, Bullock's body appears invulnerable. But she is anything but cool-headed. Her anxiety doesn't seem to come from the threat of physical pain. Rather, she is overwhelmed with the amount of information she must process: coordinates, shuttle manuals, ornate procedures. Like a junior law associate trying to keep up with an ever increasing workload, Bullock remains physically safe as she grows ever more spiritually shaken. More than any recent Hollywood film, Gravity presents the body as mere operational device, a cursor, an avatar who performs a set of actions. It is workflow cinema.
Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is Gravity’s twin and its inversion. Both films decorate their bare-bones plots with dazzling visual effects; each follows a female protagonist to the end of her mission and leaves her the sole survivor. But everywhere that Gravity is clean, Alien is gross, material, full of blood and sweat and splattered guts. Bodies in Alien can be beautiful, but only insofar as they are nothing more nor less than meat. It’s unsurprising, then, that the film’s heroine also strips down in front of the camera’s gaze. Alien’s infamous underwear scene so resembles Gravity’s that there is no doubt Cuarón looked to Scott’s film for inspiration. But the differences between the two are instructive — as is the fact that the near nudity in Alien was the cause of a brief but vibrant academic controversy.
Alien happens to be one of the most cited and most discussed films in the history of Anglophone feminist film theory. Film scholars love Alien so passionately that even Slate has pondered why we are so obsessed with it. Alien’s iconic moment — in which a phallic-looking alien creature bursts out of its human host’s abdomen — resembles nothing so much as childbirth. The creature who emerges looks like a collage of teeth and various genitalia, all covered in a sticky brown fluid. This foe takes over a cavernous commercial spaceship, only to be fought off by a strong, resourceful, and wonderfully real-seeming heroine: Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. Over the course of the film, Ripley also does battle with an evil corporation — called “the Corporation” — and its handmaiden, a HAL-like spaceship operating system that goes by the name Mother. For anyone who was versed in the Lacanian-Marxist idiom that dominated film theory in 1979, it was possible to go on talking about Alien basically forever.
Talking and arguing: The near nudity at the end of Alien was the subject of intense debate among feminist film theorists. Ripley undresses after she’s escaped the wreckage of the mothership in an emergency shuttle. Exhausted, sweaty, probably wet with alien guts, she peels off her standard-issue jumpsuit to reveal white bikini bottoms and a skimpy tank — “Not standard gear for space duty,” as one writer argued. Many feminists criticized the scene for transforming a powerful and active heroine into a passive object of voyeurism. We break identification with her, the story goes; the film converts her from heroine and subject into visual plaything.
Other scholars defended the scene as indicative of Alien’s complexity: Ripley is competent, strong, and sexual without being controlled by her sexuality. She is, in Thomas Kavanagh’s words, an “autonomous woman” who is entitled to take off her uniform at the end of a long day’s work. But for some, that was just the problem. Australian feminist Barbara Creed argued that Alien ends by comforting its male viewers with this palatable sort of femininity. “Ripley’s body,” she argues, “is pleasurable and reassuring to look at” — nothing like the “uncontrollable, generative, cannibalistic mother” the alien represents. Nor is her body anything like the traitorous onboard operating system, Mother. Those figures might threaten patriarchy. An autonomous woman in her panties does not.
Persuasive as Creed’s argument is, few viewers of Alien will admit to feeling comfortable or comforted during the film’s conclusion. As soon as Ripley undresses, she discovers that her alien foe has stowed away on her escape craft. Undressed and unarmed, she quickly has to devise a strategy. She climbs into her spacesuit, straps herself into a seat, and opens up the airlock so that the alien is sucked out into space. (The scene is the inverse of Gravity’s climax, in which the ghost of George Clooney boards Bullock’s escape craft in order to cheer the heroine — and bore the audience — with a few folksy platitudes.) This is Alien’s tensest moment, the moment in which Ripley’s fear is the most catching: As she shakes, we shake too.
Does that mean that Ripley is still subject, that we identify with her? These seem like the wrong words. Instead, we enter into a kind of mutual responsiveness with the body we see onscreen. We gasp at the same monster and quake with the same fear. Film theorist Linda Williams has famously called horror one of cinema’s “body genres,” because it displays bodies in extremis, and in doing so forces the audience to experience the same extremes. Horror makes us scream; porn arouses us; melodrama has us choke back tears. Williams argued that when it comes to certain "low" cinematic genres, film is a kind of contagion.
Viewers who lust after Weaver’s body, then, may enjoy something much more complicated than the power of the objectifying “male gaze.” We are aware that Weaver’s flesh is vulnerable to both the alien’s claws and our devouring eyes. But the feeling that our onscreen companion is about to be ravaged might excite us because we share it. With her, we prepare to be ravaged too. Cinema and sex share at least one substantive feature: Both can leave us confused as to who is subject and who is object. Sometimes this confusion is dangerous; sometimes it is bliss.
In Gravity, Cuarón discards many of the formal rules that have guided classical Hollywood cinema for about a century. The 180-degree rule, the axis of action, the eyeline match — all are gone. The world of outer space obviates the terms up, down, left, and right; space lacks even the horizon line that normally serves as the central axis for such terms. And so the cinematic frame — our view onto events — is free to move more wildly in Gravity than it typically does in a narrative film.
Take, for instance, the scene in which Bullock’s character first finds herself floating untethered. She’s spinning wildly, unable to see anything clearly, unable make any sense of her orientation vis-à-vis her space shuttle. The cinematic frame approaches her body, which spins in front of a stable backdrop of stars. But soon, once we are closer to Bullock, the frame proceeds to lock its motion to hers. Her face is suddenly stable in the frame, and all of outer space appears as though it were somersaulting around her.
This exercise in relative motion is virtuosic enough, but still more ambitious is the visual stunt that follows. Our viewpoint floats straight through Bullock’s visor so that we are inside her spacesuit helmet with her. We then we spin on our axis so that we land in a point-of-view shot. In the celebrated POV sequence that ensues, the landscape whirls around us. Heaven and earth become an abstract, spinning blur. We try, along with our heroine, to pinpoint the tiny speck of her space shuttle amidst the colors and shapes zipping by, and we feel the impossibility of the task set before her.
But the colors and shapes follow a pattern. Gradually, we assimilate them; we start to get our bearings. And with a gentle assist from Cuarón — who slows our spinning ever so slightly — we manage to see the spaceship at the precise moment that Bullock’s character does. The scene is what J. Hoberman, in a review of the film, called an exercise in “spatial disorientation — or better, reorientation.” Several critics compare this aspect of the film to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which critic Annette Michelson famously celebrated for illustrating the “pleasures and problems” of bodies in space: “Viewing becomes, as always but as never before, the discovery, through the acknowledgment of disorientation, of what it is to see, to learn, to know, and of what it is to be, seeing.” The very plotlessness of Kubrick’s masterwork gives the film its sensuality — its air of “erotic liberation,” as Michelson called it. Viewers had the time to luxuriate in their own disorientation and reorientation.
Gravity moves far too quickly and formulaically for any of that. We don’t have time to linger in sensation — we have a job to do. In Cuarón’s hands, the immersive point-of-view shot doesn’t signal identification so much as an alliance between viewer, camera, and character. We solve the same problems that Bullock solves. We’re urged to find our orientation, to look for familiar shapes, to figure out how to get from point a to point b. Watching Gravity is, more than anything, like playing a video game, and its impossibly long POV shots mimic the video-game style. Cuarón had already invented this first-person-shooter aesthetic in Children of Men (2006). In that film’s climactic tracking shot, some specks of animated blood land on the camera lens, only to fade away as the protagonist (Clive Owen) enters the final showdown — as he “levels up” and confronts another obstacle.
Gravity both heightens and disinfects this video-game look. At least Owen bleeds and limps and struggles along in his muddy, broken shoes. Bullock experiences nothing so messy. We see her in danger, but rarely in pain. When the flames of a space-station fire lick her ankles, we mentally urge her to move faster. We sit on the edge of our seats because we know that, at any moment, she could die: game over. But we never see her skin bruise or burn. Whatever happens to Bullock’s body only interests Cuarón — and us — insofar as it bears on her ultimate survival. Each setback is a small drop in the heroine’s “health” bar; we can still play happily so long as we don’t get to zero. Yet Gravity does not demand from its heroine or its audience the typical range of video-game tasks. Unlike the action-movie or war-game hero, Bullock has nothing to shoot and no one to kill. Her task, like ours, is simply to organize the overwhelming flow of visual data she receives through her visor. Her eyes and mind just happen to reside in a body.
Such workflow cinema is the perfect use of 3-D. As viewers and players, we can navigate a world of hollow bodies more strategically than a world full of tactile sensation. If Gravity’s lens showed Bullock’s skin as fleshy and irritable, we might sense the chafe of her spacesuit or the intense heat and cold of her spacewalk. These sensations might distract us from our task. But 3-D animation cannot render such textures very well yet. In this era of drone pilots and the quantified self, perhaps it does not need to. The kind of work we do watching Gravity resembles the work many of us do at our desks every day: We devour and analyze images, at the expense of our bodies. Many of us sink so eagerly into the slow pace and rich textures of Belá Tarr to escape just the experience that Gravity provides.
Bullock’s body thus offers a different problem than does Weaver’s in Alien. We no longer wonder whether the heroine is an object of lust or a subject of identification: She is neither. Nor is her movement through space occasion for the aesthetic free-play we see in 2001. Instead, Bullock is a device, custom-built to accomplish various goals. Even the film’s transparent attempt to humanize her character (using a hastily tacked-on backstory about a dead child) serves a clear purpose: It allows Bullock to meet the minimum conditions for an Oscar nomination.
But Bullock’s real virtuosity as an actor lies in her ability to make herself into an instrument. Producer David Heyman praised Bullock for “all the effort and physical exertion” of her performance, “the precision of the technical aspects.” Bullock had to move her body in slow-motion, to turn herself into a marionette strung up on wires while a team of puppeteers moved her limbs. The most difficult of these scenes, Heyman notes, was the scene in which she strips down: “She’s on a bicycle stringing uncomfortable with people moving around on 12 wires, through it all, with no gravity. Physically the body must not show the tension, so it looks effortless.” Her body enthralls not because of its fleshy sensuality, but because of her mastery over it — and her willingness to let the powerful apparatus of contemporary film production direct her immense competence. We, as viewers, adopt this mastery and subjugation with her.
Thirty-five years have passed since Alien. In 1979, many feminist critics saw the onscreen sex object as the perfect image of patriarchal oppression. Contemporary film critics have absorbed some of these lessons, and continue to debate the criteria by which they will ultimately judge a film as sexist or progressive. In doing so, they forget the central lesson of feminist film theory: that Hollywood cinema will always try to reproduce its own patriarchal, white-supremacist, capitalist system. The thing that makes this cinema interesting, worth examining and even loving, is that it does so using machines and people it can’t always control. Hollywood offers us stark and telling images of the forces that constrain and construct us. And, sometimes, its quirks and flaws suggest escape routes and unimagined alternatives.
When asked whether the film was specifically for female audiences, Bullock is clear: “The point of view is everyone’s point of view. It just so happens that I have a female body.” By allying us with its protagonist, Gravity universalizes its image of exploited female labor, sells it back to its entire audience, men and women alike. Gravity shows a contemporary ideal of femininity still more sinister than the pinup. It presents woman as an intricate machine, strapped to dozens of wires, working her ass off with the goal of appearing weightless.