CINEMA: In Space Nobody Can Hear You Scream


GRAVITY (2013, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, 90 minutes, U.S.)
WADJDA (2012, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, 98 minutes, Saudi Arabia)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC I’ve been met with nothing but skepticism when I tell folks the next must-see film is a sci-fi epic starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. I can’t blame them; with that spare description, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity sounds like Hollywood business as usual, which is exactly what this downright thrilling adventure is not. For at least the last decade, Hollywood blockbusters have smashed up cities and flexed super powers like clockwork, but here is a special effects extravaganza that neither launches a franchise nor taps into the semi-forgotten nostalgia of past eras. Instead, it has triggered a feeling I haven’t had in what seems like forever. Gravity is a film that makes the mind race with the discovery, “Here’s something I’ve never seen before.”

And Cuarón works this magic not with bombast but with simplicity. If Gravity was converted to literature, it would be a short story, not a doorstop. With only two characters, Gravity is a real-time drama, showing us the intimate emotions of two astronauts who suddenly find themselves stranded in space when their space shuttle is destroyed by the debris of a renegade Russian satellite  — while they are spacewalking. Left adrift, cut off from Houston and horribly alone, the pair fight panic and forge a plan to get back to Mother Earth while the air supply in their bulky spacesuits quickly dwindles. Gravity is theme park cinema at its highest strata, a visceral, visual thrill ride that summons unusual emotional power by taking us to the edge of Heaven and to the precipice of death.

Director Cuarón, who co-wrote Gravity with his son Jonás, hasn’t limited his career to dissecting pet themes. He has tackled a variety of cinematic subjects yet he consistently has shown an urgent naturalism, memorably present in Y Tu Mamá También‘s sexual liaisons and the assassination scene in the dystopic thriller Children of Men. Cuarón brings a similar sense of hyper-reality to the landscape of outer space. Countless films have taken us into space countless times but here the world beyond our atmosphere feels as alive as NASA footage, a hostile yet gorgeous world of ultra-vivid stillness that can quickly unleash invisible forces of great violence. “Nature abhors a vacuum” the old saying goes and as time and air run out for our astronauts, a lonely death and unfathomable beauty float and rotate along the frame’s periphery.

There’s some brief conversation that draws an allusion between a character’s personal limbo and the situation they now find themselves but backstory and characterization is kept to a minimum. Instead, Gravity is a classic survival story, with the odds stacked high and the elements cruelly inhospitable. Despite the presence of cutting-edge special effects in every shot, Cuarón has tapped into a vein of cinema so pure that the film could function as a silent movie. And for theater lovers, Gravity is just what the doctor ordered: a true cinema event. This is not a film to stream at home, make a point of seeing it in full theater scale. It might be the closest you’ll get to the edge of the universe.
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Back here on earth, there’s a little girl ready to win your heart. It’s Wadjda, the title character of this rare film from out of Saudi Arabia. In the neo-realist tradition that goes back at least as far as DeSica’s post-war classic The Bicycle Thief, the film Wadjda hopes to illuminate Western audiences about a society’s injustice through the eyes of an innocent child. The issues at hand are the forces that inhibit the rights of women across the Middle East as illustrated by the story of one spunky Chuck Taylor-wearing kid.

With her long nose and large sad eyes Wadjda‘s (Waad Mohammed) pre-pubescent girl’s face hints at the strong woman she might become. For now she is a smart-mouthed rebel, refusing to cover her hair, secretly selling wares at school (Ah! The capitalist spirit!) and listening to forbidden music on cassettes. Her main goal though is to buy a bicycle, so she can race around the streets like the young boys in her neighborhood, although tradition forbids such a thing.

Much of the oppression is dished out at Wadjda‘s school, but at home her mother deals with the restrictions that women face as well. Chief among the obstacles, travel is limited because women need to hire a professional driver to accompany them, making something as simple as shopping for groceries an on-going dilemma. Wadjda‘s father is only a peripheral presence; he drops in to play video games but he is distracted by a search to find a new wife who can give him a male heir. As the burdens pile up, Wadjda seeks deliverance in joining a contest to memorize passages of the Koran, a pursuit that the “powers that be” encourage. With the prize money she hopes to be able to buy her bicycle.

Wadjda is proclaimed as the first commercial feature from Saudi Arabia and it is directed by a woman as well, first-timer Haifaa Al-Mansour (judging by this story, on Man she has soured indeed). The film has met with near universal acclaim and no doubt it plucks the heartstrings with much finesse. Unnoticed in the film’s praise is how the story’s simplicity helps it serve as a subtle propaganda tool that invites us to cluck our collective tongues at the people of the Middle East. The film does nothing to challenge the West’s limited understanding of the cultures of the region, and certainly doesn’t allude to how our unswerving support of the dictatorship of Saudi Arabia has strengthened religious extremism. While a heart-felt comment on the issue of Saudi women’s oppression, Wadjda too readily supports the mindset that has demonized the Arab world during our decade-plus of war.

The oppression of women across the world is a profoundly serious issue not to be minimized but it is also one that has been introduced to encourage people on the Left to support U.S. wars, and to further “otherize” our chosen combatants. A truer picture would not completely obscure the fact that love, kindness, and humanity exists across the world, and not just in the hearts of little girls who embrace the trappings of the West..