Gravity, Dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)


Synopsis: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

What remains when we strip away what we think forms our identity? After the accomplishments, relationships, surroundings, children, hobbies, skills and friends are put aside, what do we see? Can we consider ourselves not in relation to other entities, but simply as ourselves — and in that moment of reflection, can we stand what we see?

Alfonso Cuarón’s new picture, Gravity, is about a woman struggling to survive in outer space. The capable and learned engineer — not an astronaut — Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is cut loose from the safety zone of her vessel, and she is as untethered in the literal sense as she is in metaphorical terms.

Outer space is an environment ripe for metaphors, because of its vastness and simplicity, but the film goes further: Stone is not simply untethered in the sense of being isolated from her loves and loved ones, but more fundamentally because she lacks a reason to live. Her sudden life-or-death dilemma introduces a mental state where survival is tantamount. In our contemporary culture, such thinking is fairly alien. It was not always so. We forget that less than fifty years ago the term “lifestyle” did not exist; before the postwar economic boom, people were too concerned with merely trying to endure. The surplus capital didn’t exist yet for such monumental concern with superficialities. Certainly the idea of selecting and defining one’s identity based on such must have seemed ridiculous.

With her priorities suddenly thrown so far asunder, Bullock’s character similarly perceives how superfluous such concerns are. The above list of identity-defining elements is unceremoniously shoved aside by her need to survive. Over time, we see they are not the sum of who she is. We are human, and we respond easily to what is quantifiable, but of course that’s not all there is. I’m reminded of the reductive argument of nature vs. nurture; let us remember that more than those two elements, there is a third thing to consider- the living, breathing biological organism under question, which itself is capable of originating its own decisions. Parents know their children can behave in ways unrelated to external or hereditary influence. There is more.

The film allows us to spend time with someone who is forced to see herself removed of all context, and to behave — find reason to behave — through it. The prospect of confronting one’s essential being can be daunting; witnessing the film ultimately ends up being an intensely comforting experience, as we and the character together realize that we are who we are in ways much stronger than we realize, and that there is a fortitude in us that the clutter of life sometimes hides.

All of which is not to say that Gravity doesn’t also succeed tremendously as a breathtaking genre thriller of the highest order. There isn’t anything else quite like it. Ms. Stone is working on the exterior of a satellite in the opening scene, when things first go terribly wrong, and they stay that way for the rest of the film. At a tightly constructed, economical 90 minutes, it’s impossible to turn away from. The entire film is essentially a third act; we drop in en medias res, and experience the life-or-death throes typical of a film’s climax for the entire duration of the picture. Nail-biting is an understatement. Best of all, this intensity is achieved without sacrificing a plausible milieu for the viewer; no outer-space explosions or explanations of jargon here.

Mr. Cuarón’s grasp of technique is prodigious; collaborating again with ace cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (who regularly works for Terrence Malick), the images they create here are magnificent. We’ve seen beautiful lensing of the outer limits before in films like 2001 and For All Mankind, but what Cuarón and Lubezki accomplish here is unique. The film’s opening shot is a single unbroken take that continues for seventeen minutes. Taking a page from Altman and Orson Welles and then exploding the possibilities, Cuarón’s camera glides with balletic ease from wide to close-up, from motion to not. In one moment the camera is stationary, observing Bullock as she spins out of control while hooked to debris; in the next moment, we have gently transitioned into keeping pace with her, so we’re spinning in tandem with her, while everything else moves around us.

The absence of any cutting in what amounts to the film’s first third has an effect more powerful than we might assume. Whether we are cognizant of it or not, we moviegoers understand the basic grammar of film editing. After a century of watching films, we intuitively understand the language of shot progression, and can generally have some notion of what type of shot will follow the one we’re seeing. Here, that safety net has been removed. There is no way of anticipating the next shot, because it’s all one continuous flow; a single perspective, albeit a mobile one.

Cuarón’s preference for unbroken takes is visible in all his films (witness the climax of Children of Men, whose ten-minute take is possibly more impressive because it was shot on film); Gravity has a miniscule 156 shots, as compared to the 2,000-shot average these days; even films from a half-century ago still averaged 800 shots. There is a drifting quality at work here that heightens the realism. Cuts implicitly state a removal of something in between two shots; there’s more verisimilitude if a shot is continuous. Many of these 156 shots are extended 6-10 minute takes. Interestingly, the film is framed at 2.35:1, instead of the more conveniently claustrophobic 1.85:1 academy ratio; the choice nonetheless works, as the cramped spaces of the shuttles still feel cramped. The scope frame effectively captures the vastness of space in a way that the flat ratio likely wouldn’t.

There’s a magical moment during the opening shot where the camera observes Bullock, wearing her space helmet, for an extended period of time; then, slowly, we the camera drift imperceptibly closer until we are actually inside her helmet, on the claustrophobic inside looking out. Her panicked breath fogs the glass, obscuring our field of vision. For shots such as this one 3D is particularly valuable. Normally a format I detest (learn more below), Cuarón’s use of 3D here is admirable. Whereas most 3D pictures artificially separate the field of vision into planes — foreground, background (the human eye doesn’t do this, which is why 2D is actually a better approximation of eyesight than 3D), here there are not divided planes but a full sense of near and far with all the depth in between.

While I still think 3D is a passing gimmick (the current craze is actually not as heavy as it was in the 50s, the heyday for 3D movies), I have to wholeheartedly recommend it here. The aforementioned shot in which we’re stuck inside Bullock’s helmet is immeasurably helped by the format; that fogged glass feels as if it’s right up against us, and the distance of the space beyond is palpable. The shots in which spaceships are being destroyed and debris are flying are a visual feast- there is so much movement in the frame, and 3D only amplifies the sense of chaos.

Special mention of the sound design should also be noted; as a director famous for complex soundscapes, Gravity is no exception. The score is minimal and extremely effective; a subtle, eerie repeating tone punctuates the action, and like Children, the intricate sound work is of the type that makes one turn one’s head in the theatre.

How refreshing it is to have a female protagonist in a film that’s not a romance or comedy. Sandra Bullock was the third choice for the role, but upon seeing the film I have trouble imagining anyone else. No previous performance of hers prepares us for her work here; there is an unforced and natural confidence of presence she projects which feels not like that of a movie star, but of a human being. Her character has no great loved one or family waiting for her; we buy her aching loneliness and lack of self-esteem in a way that just wouldn’t be plausible with a bigger star. Bullock is in every scene, and is largely the only character onscreen for the duration of the film (George Clooney has an excellent supporting turn early on); she absolutely carries the picture. Her performance is not merely passable in an otherwise fantastic film; no, her work is of a caliber right alongside the direction and craftwork.

Gravity can play as merely a survival thriller, and as such it’s a recent best. Audiences looking only for that will leave satisfied. However, there’s a lot more to chew on here. The title has a double meaning; in two senses it is the most coveted item in the film. Weightlessness in space proves to be a curse for the characters, most of whom’s problems would be solved if there was gravity; additionally, gravity, in the sense of meaning, weight, serious purpose — this is what Ryan Stone so wishes to possess. Don’t we all?

The quandaries presented are both literal and philosophical. This first aspect will lead to a strong opening weekend (with a $55.6M weekend gross from 3500 locations), but the latter element will allow the film to hold as time marches on. Great films, like great literature, last because they are character-based. Peruse any list of the greatest films of all time; they are great not for their stories, but their explorations of human nature. When people talk about Citizen Kane or The Godfather, they don’t discuss the story and “what happens next;” they talk about the characters and how they interact, and what we learn from watching them. The same is the case here.

Many excellent films fade from the discussion as time progresses. Gravity is the best-reviewed film of the year in release so far, and I feel this enthusiasm for the film will persist.

Further reading:

Alfonso Cuarón discusses making the film.

Emmanuel Lubezki discusses the cinematography.

Some strong observations on 3D from Walter Murch.

The enjoyable film scholar Kristen Thomson dissects 3D from a technical and financial perspective in this two part essay: part 1, part 2.