In order to fully process all the awesome of Gravity, this post most assuredly contains spoilers. If you ever (even maybe) plan on seeing the film, I’d encourage you to skip this. If you’ve seen it, though – read on, and lemme know what you think, too!
Several weeks ago, I saw a trailer for Gravity. Like everyone else who watched it, I was instantly intrigued.
A few weeks ago, when the film made its premiere and the unqualified positive reviews hit, I was sold. I can’t remember the last film of this caliber that’s been so resoundingly praised – not Avatar, not Lincoln, nothing comes to mind that is in the same (forgive the pun) stratosphere as Cuarón’s latest.
Without a circle to call my own here in the city just yet, I knew my birthday plans on Friday would be simple. About a week out, I settled on seeing Gravity that night in full IMAX, 3D effect – what better way to celebrate me than with what was being heralded as the year’s best cinematic experience? Right up my alley.
Gravity is the space-set suspense/thriller/drama that puts Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone at the center of extraordinary circumstances conspiring to keep her from getting back to life on Earth. A taut 90 minutes, George Clooney shares top billing as the veteran astronaut on mission with Stone though, as I’m about to elaborate on, it’s an unfortunate case of sexism in film (a bold statement, I know – but bear with me).
In the several days since I’ve seen the film, three thoughts keep tumbling through my head as I process this achievement, this cinematic game-changer. First, that had the film billed Bullock alone, as anyone who’s seen the film would argue she should be, it would never have reached the record-breaking box office success it’s seeing now. Second, that Cuarón, in a world where every trick of film has been tried, has quite possibly delivered filmmaking no one has ever seen before. And lastly, the truth of storytelling, the emotional stakes a screenwriter is able to get us to invest in a character and situation we’ve only just been introduced to.
Because I have all the thoughts right now, I’m making the executive decision to split this post up rather than try to say everything I want to say at once. My write-up on Cuaron’s script and filmmaking can be found here. In this post, let’s talk Bullock. Because, phenomenal.
I may be unique in this, but going into the movie – given its marketing, mainly – I assumed this was a two-person vehicle, that Clooney and Bullock share top billing because they share screen time, share star turns. In a happy case of missed expectations, that’s not the case. This is Bullock’s film through and through. Like Hanks before her in Cast Away or Redford in the forthcoming All Is Lost, this is a single-character, fight-to-survive drama where the audience has only Bullock to connect with for 70 of the 90 minutes of the film. It’s quite possible that the majority of audiences won’t even give a second thought to Cuarón’s decision to enlist a female protagonist (albeit with a boy’s name; “My dad wanted a boy,” Stone says at one point…). And that’s a credit to the film, the acting and perhaps yes, our post-feminist state where maybe we can take a role for a role and not have to assign it gender or color or sexual orientation.
And yet, Bullock’s performance, Cuarón’s character choices – this role is groundbreaking. In just its opening weekend, Gravity now boasts several records: highest October opening ever; highest percentage of ticket sales for 3D shows; on and on. And it’s done this with a woman carrying the weight of its success on her shoulders. Audiences are leaving the theaters tweeting and posting and telling their friends to See. This. Film. Bullock is that good. I’m tempted to wonder if the roles were reversed, if Clooney were the one fighting his way to the Chinese Space Station with only a fire extinguisher as thruster, would the film be doing double at the box office? Half?
In the end, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that every studio in the country is paying attention, that the next time a renowned filmmaker approaches them about the next big-budget sci-fi flick with a female character as lead, they’ll have to at least say it’s worked before and could again, if not greenlight it right on the spot. And in the boys’ club that is Hollywood, that’s major.
Despite an emotional roller coaster so tense my muscles were sore when the credits finally ran, I was disappointed to see Bullock and Clooney with shared billing following the title card. My “We Can Do It!” inner feminist wishes Bullock had the top billing she so deserves. But then, the message has been sent – and received – on the strength of her performance. I suppose no billing block – unfair as it might seem – can take that away.
Until Friday night, Cate Blanchett’s emotional, fragile portrayal of a divorcé in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine easily topped my list of best performances of the year. She was handily knocked off her pedestal by Bullock, and though we’re still early in process, in my opinion Bullock has just cinched every award out there. She is vulnerable and strong, troubled and resilient; Stone emerges over the course of the film in the way the best characters do – revealed moment by moment, a singular creation yet susceptible to circumstances. With only those circumstances to respond to, Bullock’s Stone is captivating; though I imagine most scenes were in some soundstage wrapped in CGI green, Bullock’s every breath is one of a woman very likely stranded miles above home, left to die. Her desolation – tempered by an incredible determination – is palpable.
Major spoiler alert!!! Seriously, stop reading here. I’m about to spoil the ending and you MUST see this for yourself if you haven’t already…
By the time Stone survives a near drowning as her rescue pod sinks, only to stand triumphant on a beach (somewhere on this planet, does it really matter where?!) – by the time we got there, after the litany of near misses and close calls it took to get there, by then I felt like I could get up and cheer right there in the theater. On uncertain legs, Stone stands and takes her first few steps on solid ground – unsettling even to the viewer, having just spent an hour watching her float through space stations like a fish in water – and I wanted to jump for joy with her. I left the theater feeling like I could achieve anything, having just seen Stone do what she did. I left with a new heroine, a new inspiration in the catalogue of strong, capable women – fictional or otherwise – who seem to speak directly to me and, I hope, to countless other women (and men!), too.
I can’t know if Cuarón set out to make a movie so inspirational, but I hope among the box office success and the filmmaking praise (all greatly deserved) that are sure to become the film’s legacy, part of it is also this character Bullock so brilliantly brought to life and its impact on audiences. In a following post, I’ll delve into the filmmaking itself and Cuarón’s unique storytelling prowess that made such a strong reaction to this character possible.