Update (and edited score) 2018, on the eve of Roma’s release: It’s impossible as ever to ignore Cuaron’s signal audio-visual achievements with Gravity, but I find myself even colder on the film’s ability to connect the dots between charting our outer space, which it does so well, and truly destabilizing our inner space, a task on which it essentially punts entirely.
I’ve never seen a film quite like Gravity. On one hand, it’s a thrill ride to end all thrill rides, never letting up in subjecting its characters to situations from bad to worse during its slim but breathless 90 minute running length. Gravity is nerve-wrecking in a purely visual way that few films aim to be. This is a true edge-of-your-seat motion picture. But it’s much more than that too. Gravity is a film which tries to challenge what film can be on a technical level. Moreover, it tries to transform our understanding and appreciation of Earth and its surroundings visually while also playing to populist sensibilities and trying to earn its large budget back by showcasing destruction and visual splendor on a level beyond any other film of 2013. It’s 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Star Wars, and you’d be forgiven for thinking these two goals are incompatible, but more on that later. For now, I will simply say here that, for those simply looking for “the next big thing” in film technology, Gravity has anything else handily beat. This is a visually bold, singular, uncompromising film that will be remembered as a game-changer many years in the future. That it also happens to be quite good is just the icing on the cake.
The narrative through-line of director Alfonso Cuaron’s labor of love (it’s taken him over seven years to make), is actually pretty simple. Astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) find themselves stranded in space with little chance of survival after debris from a satellite explosion sends them hurtling into deep space. The set-up is clean, playful, and efficient, but the meat of the piece is a survival story in a long line of literary and filmic works attempting to capture the essence of knowing one’s imminent death and fighting to survive regardless. The major difference isn’t one of plot, but one of location. Gravity gives the final frontier new life, and it’s the visual panache with which outer space and the dangers associated with it are conveyed that really make or break Gravity. This is the type of film the world “visionary” is coined for. It captures director-writer Alfonso Cuaron not only continuing his unbroken track record of technical skill but lashing out with pinpoint accuracy to claim new territory for himself, and film as a visual medium to begin with. The film’s story is its setting. And if film is a medium in which the doctrine “show, not tell” reigns supreme, this is its modern pile-driving manifesto. Gravity redefines “show”.
Despite being nominally a two-person show, the real star of Gravity is the environment itself: space. Gravity’s meditation on desperation and survival wouldn’t be nearly as meaningful if the film’s at once foreign and all too familiar environment wasn’t conveyed with the mastery it is here. Expansive and distant yet immediate and personal, Cuaron’s depiction of space is equaled only by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cuaron, along with awe-inspiring cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in perhaps his greatest work ever ( and this guy photographed The Tree of Life), commits thoroughly to a vision of space as a frighteningly indecipherable place of the mind. The duo create a tumultuous maelstrom of subjective (largely virtual) camerawork pushing everything we need to know right up past our eyes and toward the level of the mind. An unbroken opening 20 minute take is a highlight as the camera spins around our main characters, at first leisurely and later with force and desperation to mimic their emotions. At one point, the camera slowly, deliberately, and exhaustingly moves inward toward and into a character’s helmet from far away and then smoothly pans to take over the character’s viewpoint to present space from their perspective and bridge audience and character, only to move back out without cutting to show how much that character could not see, blinded by their fear and desperation.
We aren’t just watching a location in Gravity, we are transported to it, and yet it remains, intentionally, a mystery. What Cuaron and Lubezki are able to do with their famous long takes here, which trump anything they’ve yet accomplished, is simply mind-bending (and this is saying something from the pair who gave us two of the greatest long takes of the past decade in Children of Men). In particular, the earlier scenes, where the camera slowly and surely winds us up by moving in one direction and then frequently dashing back in another, work wonders to convey a deceptive playfulness followed by a ravaged desperation and melancholic loneliness.
And Cuaron’s skill isn’t purely visual; the sounds of silence permeate the film and fill it with a sense of icy, oppressive majesty and dread. Because of this, everything we do hear is all the more piercing and jarring, like a gunshot cutting through loneliness and bringing fear that, even if dangerous, is at least more active than the black hole of perpetual emptiness. Even better (and here’s something I genuinely haven’t heard in a film in a while, or maybe ever), Cuaron knows how to manipulate the sound to connect and disjoint it and present it as though we were characters in his film. Thus, sounds don’t simply happen in the film – they creep up from one side and then swirl around in relation to his characters and fill the space of the frame. It’s a difficult effect to discuss, but Cuaron knows well how sound can occupy space in multi-faceted ways.
Speaking of sound design, it’s telling that Cuaron transforms sound into a sort of economy in the film. Dialogue is at a premium in Gravity. The first 20 minutes of the film are playful, but after things go awry, the presence or absence of dialogue literally become a matter of life and death. On one hand, speaking consumes oxygen, which becomes a precious resource, but as Bullock’s Stone and Clooney’s Kowalski continue to talk with one another even while physically separated, we begin to see that sometimes what one loses in oxygen they make up for in sanity. Throughout Gravity Cuaron makes crystal-clear how much having one last word means when one could be killed at any minute. Every sound, every voice, including a dog bark over an intercom, takes on greater meaning than it would otherwise.
One moment in particular stands out: Stone, simultaneously resigning herself to death and continuing to fight for survival, delivers a monologue to herself about survival, spirituality, life after death, and human interaction. In any other film, this would be cringe-inducing (more on this later). Here however, Bullock’s resigned facial expression and uncommitted tone and Cuaron’s framing transform the speech from an indulgent mess and into something far more disquieting. As she continues to speak lines we’ve heard movie characters say all too often, we begin to realize that she doesn’t necessarily believe anything she’s saying. But it gives her something to say, to hear a voice for one second longer, even if it is her own.
Now, I’ve heaped quite a bit of praise upon the film as a technical achievement, but it must be noted that Gravity doesn’t make it easy on itself. Specifically, it commits a cardinal sin of films these days: it tries, to little avail, to actually be about something. Cuaron’s visuals are unimpeachable, but Gravity doesn’t always trust those visuals. The script forces its own hand and doesn’t do a bang-up job of it. Those visuals already convey miles – horror, terror, awe, emptiness – but Cuaron is convinced we won’t get it and doubles back to talk about the things he has been so good about showing us throughout the film. He would have done well to massage his larger spiritual tale of space and survival out of his purely visual fireworks, aiming for a sort-of high-octane The Tree of Life or, more appropriately, 2001. But he forgets his strengths here, or maybe aspires for other ones he doesn’t earn – that of characters speaking his themes aloud. Remember: show, don’t tell.
The script also has other problems. Namely, the film innately shifts from pummeling us with pure space and place to wanting us to connect with Bullock’s character. This, above all, opens up the film to its character flaws and turns something that never would have been a flaw into a fairly significant one – Stone just isn’t that interesting as a specific human character. Bullock is great, conveying doubt, dread, hope, and numerous other emotions, sometimes within seconds of each other and all connected by Cuaron’s long takes. But her character is a little bit more “space on the screen” than “genuine human”. She’s best as an avatar for us, an element rather than a specific person, but at some point Cuaron wishes to make her out as a character. The film’s abstracted, mythic parable for human survival becomes just a person flailing around in space. A change that isn’t helped by the film’s move away from the chilling haunt that it does oh so well; Gravity the inspirational action film just isn’t a patch on Gravity the festering tale of dread and desperation, and Cuaron really wants the film to be both without realizing they are running the film in opposite directions.
Gravity is a singular experience for most of its running length. It makes us feel “space”, even as it acknowledges we can never understand it. Every breath the characters take is one we take with them, and the sense of verisimilitude is as high as any film released in 2013. From the vertiginous camera movements swooshing and spinning to the smaller moments like a frozen tear hitting a camera, the film has its raw technicality down pat. When this literally constructs the boundaries of what the film attempts to do, Gravity (appropriately) skyrockets into higher orbit. When the script peaks in and reminds us that this is a movie and thus must, just because all movies seemingly must, have characters, it loses some of its momentum. Gravity begins precariously placed on the line between audience pleaser and work of auteurism, and it walks this thin tightrope for about half of its running length. At some point it wavers only to find its comfort-zone on the former side, in doing so losing its singularity for something that is both stunningly constructed and resolutely milquetoast. Half gets you a long way, perhaps to the moon, especially when it’s fueled by filmmaking as definitive as it is here, but it can’t get you there and back – you may have a hell of a ride on the way, but you’ll end up stranded.