Megan Garber focuses on how the blockbuster thriller Gravity turned space from a mere setting into a true “environment”:
Gravity represents a reversal from most other entries in the “SpaceFlick” genre. Most of Hollywood’s iconic portrayals of the world beyond our own—epics, almost by default—tend to be macrocosmic, rather than micro-, in scope. They concern themselves, in pretty much every way, with wide angles rather than short. And those perspectives translate to the films’ characters, too: The main players tend to be communities and systems, collectives that wage a kind of Red Rover game against space and all its complexities. The Empire in Star Wars. The Starfleet in Star Trek. The Nostromo in Alien. The NASA of Apollo 13. The deep-core drillers of Armageddon. The assorted nerds of Contact. Within the worlds of most traditional SpaceFlicks, there are certainly men who take steps; the films’ main concerns, however, are the great leaps taken on behalf of mankind.
J. Hoberman was also sold on the film’s depiction of space as an unpredictable, nail-biting environment:
With only two actors and a single situation, the movie is stripped down and elemental. It focuses on the minutiae of individual survival and—after a brief, wacky paean to the pleasures of swanning around in outer space—is suffused with metaphysical dread. …
The anxiety rarely abates even as the debris storms from broken-up satellites that plague the astronauts—whizzing shards of lethal confetti, explosions so violent the entire screen seems to disintegrate—provide the movie with its most visually enthralling moments. Maximum tension is derived from [Sandra] Bullock’s repeated attempts to find something, anything to hold on to. In 2001, space has a majestic indifference. In Gravity, space is an active threat. The precariousness of existence is a visual constant.
Contrasting the film with Kubrick’s 2001, Paul Wells contends that Gravity demonstrates America’s diminished interest in space exploration:
Pull back the cameras. Look at the assumptions about humanity’s place in space. Kubrick’s vision was grand. He depicted routine trips by tourists to orbit, colonies circling the earth and on the moon, astronauts on their way to Jupiter, and a humanity whose destiny is the stars. [Gravity director Alfonso] Cuarón shows technicians futzing around among three space stations, two of them decrepit, with no greater hope than to make it back down to Earth where they belong. It’s a fair measure of how far most people’s ambitions for space travel have collapsed in 45 years.
Cuarón’s done nothing wrong here. He’s operating within the assumptions of his time, as Kubrick was in his.