With his 2006 film Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron proved himself as a master of crafting long continuous shots and punctuating them with unexpected and exciting action beats, all while telling a dense, thematically rich story. Seven years later, the director takes that skill set to its logical conclusion with Gravity, a space-set thriller which contains some of the most impressive cinematic visuals I’ve ever seen. But while the film is unquestionably a technical marvel, there’s also a deep emotional core at the center of its story; perhaps Cuaron’s most impressive feat here is finding the perfect balance of those two elements.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a scientist on her first shuttle mission, nervous and not quite at ease with the realities of working in space. She’s only had six months of training, far less than her veteran superior officer, Dr. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Equipped with a jet pack, he flies around their ship untethered, recounting tall tales to the ears at NASA on the other end of their communication line. But during the film’s remarkable opening shot (which reportedly lasts for 17 minutes), debris from a recently-destroyed Russian satellite becomes a wave of high-speed metal smashing into the hull of their ship, destroying it and sending Stone and Kowalski adrift with little hope of survival. Oh, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the debris is caught in the Earth’s orbit, so that means they only have 90 minutes until it circles around again to wreak more havoc.
Alfonso and his son Jonas co-wrote the screenplay, and they’ve created a story filled with tension that unfolds at a blistering pace. But at the same time, it’s also a tale which takes the time to let the dread of being alone in space really sink in. Gravity is a primal, visceral experience, and it’s mainly concerned with one woman’s struggle with whether she wants to give up or persevere in the toughest scenario imaginable. The film is packed with thematic imagery and symbolism; one shot in which Bullock’s character looks like a child in the womb was especially effective, followed shortly thereafter by a powerful scene in which we see her come to grips with the prospect of dying. The recent Oscar-winner isn’t one of my favorite actresses, but I’ll readily admit her performance here hit every emotional note necessary to keep the audience right there with her every step of the way. Clooney is solid as usual, but Bullock holds the emotional weight of the film on her shoulders, spending the majority of the film on screen by herself and doing career-best work in the process.
Cuaron mostly ditches the traditional human navigation system of up, down, left, and right; his fluid camera almost seems like a piece of debris itself at times, floating indiscriminately through space and peering in on Stone and Kowalski during their quest for survival. The camerawork takes some getting used to – especially during a nauseating spinning sequence early in the movie – but the moments of discomfort are designed to put us in the character’s heads, and more than any other film I’ve seen, it gives the audience the sensation of being alone out in the vast void of space. There are a few shots that put last year’s gorgeous Life of Pi to shame in their sheer beauty, and the visual effects team who worked on this movie should be recognized for their incredibly vivid work here. It’s not all slow pans of planets and space shots, though: there’s one scene that reminded me of that great diner explosion moment in Inception, but this is on a much larger scale with much higher stakes.
There isn’t any sound in space, so Steven Price’s score does the heavy lifting and provides some of the film’s most memorable moments. In any other movie, we’d likely hear ear-rattling explosions as debris tears through the shuttle, but here, we only see the carnage unfold; with Price’s unsettling score and Bullock’s heaving breath as the only aural elements complimenting the visuals, it’s far more terrifying.
As previously indicated, the movie is a visual spectacle of the highest quality. The narrative is compressed into a quick 90 minutes, but that might be a cause for one of the film’s only flaws: its lack of ambiguity. There’s something to be said for straightforward storytelling, and in that department, the Cuarons have achieved something fantastic. But there’s a moment in the middle of the film in which the fate of one of the characters is briefly left uncertain, and I got very excited at the possibility of the filmmakers giving the audience the opportunity to fill in the blanks and interpret the film however we saw fit. But just as quickly as that opportunity presented itself, it vanished; the ambiguity was washed away, replaced with a climax and conclusion that are impressive but ultimately not as satisfying as they might have been if we were left wondering.
Perhaps if the Cuarons had more time to explore that option, they would have gone that route, but as it is, the father/son team chose to pursue a more riveting and immediate manner of storytelling. It’s hard to fault them when the end result is such a staggering and captivating piece of cinema, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s a version of Gravity out there somewhere, floating around in the bits and bytes of an editor’s hard drive, that’s even greater than the one that will likely end up on the “best of the year” lists of every major film critic in America. Until next time…
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