Don't Let Go: Thoughts on Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity
Every trailer that made its way to theaters to market Alfonso Cuarón's seven year passion project made it out to be an action packed disaster film where in place of weather or some topically chosen war machine out to destroy America's freedom the only threat the main characters have to face is in the title. Or more accurately the lack there of. What none of the trailers really seem to convey is that nearly every deadly situation will ultimately result in one of the characters drifting off into nothingness and dying a death that when you think about it couldn't be a more peaceful or beautiful way to leave this...world? No that's not right. How about existence. Yeah, let's say that. The premise is achingly simple which I think spares it from scrutiny it might otherwise attract. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play astronauts stranded in zero-g after their shuttle (and ride home) is wrecked by the debris of a ruined satellite and so now must devise a way home while dealing with both limited oxygen and a communications blackout from Mission Control.
The film opens with a seventeen minute tracking shot beginning with a slow approach on the shuttle crew doing minor (although not routine) work on the Hubble telescope. We know this because that slow approach brings us right into their work space where we can see their hands, facial expressions, even the beads of sweat on Sandra Bullock's forehead as the unbroken shot moves in and out of the astronaut's helmets giving us both an incredible first person view of man-made technology that seems so large and important and a constant reminder that in terms of the universe humans might as well be specs of dust. Cuarón admitted that the reason he wanted to keep the script so short and sweet was so that he could spend the majority of his time working on the visuals. He certainly does this and most of Gravity comes off as a clear excuse for Cuarón and his incredible cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to play. And play they do. Lubezki has been on my personal radar since The New World and Children of Men, two of the most beautiful films I've ever laid eyes on that couldn't have been crafted any more differently from each other. Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, also shot by Lubezki, sort of sealed the deal for me in terms of the beauty that cinema could achieve. Lubezki managed to recreate the way that a child moves and interacts with it's world in a way that I daresay will never be able to be recreated again even with his painstaking attention to detail. And the man isn't even done yet! Gravity achieves a whole new understanding of visuals in film. Namely, how objects move in space. In the same way that Lubezki captures a child's perspective in Tree of Life, he manages to have a camera move exactly like an object in zero gravity. We spin, twist and bounce like the two characters and the experience becomes incredibly immersive because of that.
I've heard several comparisons made between Gravity and James Cameron's Avatar because of the heavy use of CGI to create a world and fully immerse an audience in it. This is a ridiculous comparison. You know who else uses CGI worlds? George Lucas. Zack Snyder. Dreamworks and Pixar. As far as I'm concerned Avatar remains a glorified Pixar movie. Anyone with enough money to throw at an effects team can create a world that's pretty to look at. The reason I hate these comparisons to Gravity is that for less than a third of the budget of Avatar Alfonso Cuarón was able to create an environment and a situation that made me grab my seat for dear life. The only physical reaction I had to Avatar was trying to stifle my yawns. Sure, all of these people and studios have pushed the boundaries of F/X filmmaking but there has to be more. Gravity relies on effects because that was the best way to tell this story. The same argument could be made for Avatar but seeing as most of that movie doesn't use live action at the same time as its digital effects, I'm not going to make it. Gravity's CGI is so immersive that you quickly forget your seat and fully commit to the world of the film. Cuarón pushed to make sure his effects were up to snuff and watching how these digital human beings move with real weight and dimension, I have to say he succeeded.
What's nice about Gravity is that even amidst its 3D CGI madness, Cuarón, along with co-writer and son Jonás, still manage to tug at the heart strings in a way that never comes off as melodramatic. The most powerful shot in the film for me doesn't have exploding space stations or beautifully rendered shots of the Earth. It's the shot of George Clooney watching Sandra Bullock tell a story of her daughter in a small mirror he has attached to his wrist. It takes place in the quietest section and held a lot of weight because of its tenderness. The sequence is compounded when you learn that Sandra Bullock's daughter died in a fluke accident while on a playground. No hard fought battle with a terminal disease. No murder to be avenged. Just a simple accident. This ends up doubling for Bullock's entire experience. For all the huge dangerous forces endangering her life, what she'll end up succumbing to is the silent emptiness of space. No one will know of her experience. She will die utterly and completely alone.
The only real issue I can find in Gravity is with the score. There's nothing particularly wrong with the music other than that in a movie that is so state of the art and unique in it's approach, Steven Price's score seems very run of the mill. Not to say that there aren't times where the music comes to a full crescendo and chills ripple up your neck while you watch a satellite tear itself apart and become a blizzard of metal. But many people have understandably compared Gravity to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and they're not wrong to do so. The quieter segments where we watch one or both of the film's characters silently floating through space are very reminiscent of Keir Dullea's silent, claustrophobic space walks especially when we get to actually ride the camera right inside Bullock's helmet and see the black from her perspective. Before and even more so after seeing Gravity I think the more accurate comparison to make would be to Danny Boyle's Sunshine. That film also features high levels of astounding visuals provided by both CGI artists and Alwin H. Küchler's brilliantly off kilter, confined cinematography. But where Sunshine definitely wins out by comparison is in the music. Danny Boyle gave the band Underworld the rough cut and asked them to go to work. The band, heavily influenced by avant-garde composer Gyorgy Ligeti whose work was featured in 2001, generated a full-bodied, astounding score before sending it to John Murphy for finishing touches. The band and composer share credit for the music and their work takes Sunshine to a whole new level. The one place where Cuarón seems to drop the ball is in trying to decide whether he wanted his film to be Sunshine or 2001. That is, whether to be silent and methodically designed or to simply astound its audience with pulse pounding sound design and special effects. I think in terms of relative technical approach Gravity can be comfortably seated next to 2001. Both films broke amazing new ground in terms of special effect filmmaking, but narratively and thematically Gravity and Sunshine are almost companion pieces. They each utilize aggressively stellar visualizations of outerspace that overwhelm the viewer, pay careful attention to pseudo-scientific detail, and a villain in the form of a terrifyingly unstoppable force always lurks just outside the ship's hull. Both the film's titles embody what the characters want more than anything else and the sun and earth are both constantly utilized as both awe inspiring backdrop and endpoint of the narrative journey. Comparisons to both 2001 and Sunshine are warranted even as Cuarón ignores the subliminal close-ups and quick cuts of the latter for the slow patient editing of the former (when not shredding space stations, of course). As a result Gravity seems to fall somewhere in between the two movies. I can't harp on it though since this film is first and foremost a visual wonder. You could watch it on mute and I doubt the experience would change all that much. In fact, I think it would prove a very interesting experiment.