It’s hard to believe that Alfonso Cuaron hasn’t made a film since 2006’s Children of Men, easily one of the young century’s best. Like many films that I write about here, I’ve had my eye on Gravity for years. Cuaron, one of contemporary cinema’s brightest stars, brings a unique sensibility to each project, and his creative collaboration/partnership/brotherhood with Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Del Toro is one of the single best things in the movies today.
Here’s the scoop: after a missile takes down a Russian satellite and causes a storm of debris to hit an orbiting American space shuttle, the surviving astronauts must find a way to survive. I’ll avoid saying much more. You deserve to learn the rest for yourself.
The viewer’s immediately reminded that Cuaron doesn’t do things like most “ordinary” filmmakers. From the film’s first moment until one character’s climactic tumble out into space, there are no cuts. None. Now, I recognize that the number of visual effects being used in this particular shot make it a bit easier to wrap one’s head around than a similar shot in a film like Atonement, but it’s something that’s nearly unparalleled in the contemporary cinematic landscape. Furthermore, the 3D’s really well done, and enhances the experience considerably. As someone who’s not usually a big fan of that particular gimmick, I would highly recommend that you shell out the extra dough. Think of Avatar’s “window” as opposed to the atypical “Oh no! A rock! Flying at me!” that you get from a lot of other 3D “experiences”.
Gravity is a survival story, simple as that, and it’s a damned good one too. Above all, it’s a tour de force for Cuaron’s masterful direction and Emanuel Lubezki’s peerless photography. I’ve spoken before about Chivo’s stunning work with Terrence Malick in both The Tree of Life and To The Wonder, and it’s equally astounding that he and Cuaron are able to work together so well. Essentially, I’m wondering if he’s the best ace-in-the-hole around.
From a technical perspective, Gravity is a masterpiece. The camera moves with remarkable grace through the expanses of the earth’s atmosphere as well as some claustrophobic interiors that I won’t say much about. More than anything, one is reminded of just how big space is and how foreign it is to anything at all like life on earth. Having grown up on Star Wars, Star Trek, impulse engines, warp drives, and automated docking systems, it’s refreshing to see something that communicates to dazzling effect just how difficult it is to take one object in space and get it anywhere close to another object in space. When a character is sent tumbling through space, it’s really scary, because you realize for the first time (unless you’re smarter than I am) that in space there’s very little to slow you down. Additionally, there’s a level of understatement with some of the film’s more unsettling shots that I admired.
I also particularly admired the sound design. In space, one wouldn’t exactly hear something approaching quickly, and there were a number of times where I cringed at the realization that a character had no idea of what was coming at them hot and heavy. Steven Price’s music is reminiscent of Jonny Greenwood’s recent film work, as well as the scores of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, though Price relies a bit more heavily on traditional scoring techniques.
With regard to narrative, the film’s limited scope is one of the best things about Gravity, as well as the one thing that holds it back. 127 Hours comes to mind, but where that film used flashbacks to expound upon the story of a man trapped between a rock and a hard place (yep, went there!), Gravity confines itself exclusively to the narrative’s “present.” As such, while there’s a LOT of edge-of-your-seat suspense, there are a few times where I just didn’t feel like the characters had been developed to the point that I’d have liked to be able to fully empathize with what they were dealing with. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t some genuinely affecting moments. I’m thinking of two that really moved me, one near the conclusion and the other involving an impromptu crank call of sorts that ends in the loveliest way. I’d just have appreciated a little more of an opportunity for emotional involvement. That said, I’m grateful that Cuaron and his co-writer, Jonas Cuaron, decided to keep things in the moment and avoided the ubiquitous use of the flashback, which I think a lot of other filmmakers would have opted for very quickly.
Gravity is one of the year’s best films. If you have recently complained at all about the oft-lamented (perhaps overly so) deficit of original content in the movies today, the creative audacity and sheer scope of Alfonso Cuaron’s new film will do more than a little bit to restore your faith in where the movies are headed.
4 stars (out of 5)