Article by: Dan Clark
If you were to look at the history of film you would see an ever changing stream of trends and styles. Typically that stream of change is gradually adjusting in a slow methodical manner. Sometimes however, a movie comes along that drastically alters the landscape of filmmaking. One that pushes the boundaries of what film is capable off to new and exciting heights. Movies like Jurassic Park or Avatar perfected and enhanced technologies to show what the imagination of filmmaking is capable of, and to this day we are still seeing their effects. Such will surely be the case for Alfonso Cuarón’s latest Science Fiction thrill ride Gravity.
Using technology that did not even exist until a few months prior to shooting, Cuarón crafted a technical marvel that dazzles and delights with intense action and astonishing special effects. For the first time in a very, very long time the phrase, “How did they do that?” will be uttered in theaters across the globe. Beyond the mere technical artistry is a gripping story of a fight for survival in the worst possible conditions known to mankind. Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón’s script does not forget about character in favor of brainless spectacle. It is a layered—occasionally a tad bit clumsy—metaphorical experience that hits on some of life’s biggest questions. Gravity uses everything at its disposal to pull you into an immersive journey unlike any other.
On a concept level Gravity is rather basic and straightforward. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as two astronauts who have been sent on a routine space mission. An explosion of a Russian satellite sets off a chain of catastrophic events. In an amazing choreographed sequence, space debris crashes into their station causing complete and utter destruction. What once was priceless high-tech equipment of the highest order quickly becomes not much more than weightless confetti. This accident leaves the two astronauts alone drifting in the empty vastness of space. Life in space may be impossible, nevertheless these two faithful souls are still bent on surviving what are surely insurmountable odds.
Stories that center on a very small group of actors, in this case two, are a feat to accomplish. You need impeccable directing along with strong performance to allow the film to flow properly. Gravity has an abundance of both. There is no doubt that Sandra Bullock has had a successful career, but for perhaps the first time we see her give a genuine layered performance. Her character is one that has been caring a weight that stays with her even as she leaves the confines of Earth. This baggage leaves her damaged but not broken. There is a drive to her that she is even unaware of, and that drive will assuredly be needed in this situation. Clooney also held his own as the more experienced coolheaded member of the team. It was a subdued performance that was fitting for his character as it did what it needed to do in order to get the job done.
Where the film does falter some is in some of the dialog between these two characters. Hearing them discussing their backstories comes off as a clunky way to get to some of the grander thematic aspects. With so many thrilling sequences the suspect dialog is easy to overlook. There are moments that are effectively scripted such as a scene that involves an unlikely phone call that has a haunting poignancy. Still, where the story excels is in its visual storytelling techniques.
One element that separates Gravity from you stereotypical disaster film is its extensive subtext. It touches on two converse subjects that are constantly on the opposing sides of issues. Religion and Science often do not see eye to eye. Within many cultures you are required pick one side or the other. Within this story it appears Cuarón is trying to push the idea that they are more congruent than adjacent. Life or rebirth can occur on an evolutionary or theological level—and it appears both have their merits.
Cuarón last directorial effort Children of Men was infamous for its extended long takes that ostensibly went on forever. A similar approach is taken here. The editing was crisp and always on point. Major credit also needs to go to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezk, who previously worked with Cuarón on Children of Men. In the ninety minute run time it took for the film to conclude it felt like there was a total of four or five shots. Usually when someone says a movie felt like a videogame it is meant as an insult. Here that phrase can be used as a badge of honor. The heavy use of the first person camera gives a perspective to just how insignificant a human life is to the unforgiving space. It brings you into this story so effectively by the end it can leave you physically drained.
The technical expertise that went into its making is unmatched. Sound design specifically used the vacuum of space in fascinating ways. One conceit that is usually made with space movies is the absence of sound. Though sound is impossible in space, it is very rarely treated that way in movies. This uses the technique of silence in genius ways. Tension is enhanced because it is impossible to hear the rapidly approaching danger. With that sense removed there is discombobulating feeling. Nothing was ever easy. Even the slightest movements required extensive amounts of energy. This a model example of how to treat space with the respect it deserves.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s names may be on the poster, but the true stars here are the ones behind the camera. There are a select group of films that need to be seen in a theater, and there is an even smaller group that need to be experienced in 3D. As a person who freely admits a disdain for 3D I have to confess this needs to be experienced in that format—preferably on the biggest screen possible. The depth 3D gives you provides for an even greater experience. Do yourself a favor and do not miss out on this. It is movies like Gravity that make the theater experience worth every penny.