As with part one, this post most certainly includes spoilers. Please don’t read on if you have even the slightest intention of seeing the film, even on Netflix in six months. It’s worth going in uninitiated.
In another post recently, I focused on the incredible performance of Sandra Bullock in the record-breaking Gravity, and what her role as the female protagonist of a major-budget sci-fi thriller means for movies. In a word: game change. OK, two words.
As it took me many, many more words than expected to fully capture my enthusiasm for her performance and the role, I decided to split out my other reactions to Gravity into a new post. Those being specifically Cuarón’s ground-breaking filmmaking techniques (which I’m quite confident have never been seen on film before) and his mastery for the craft of screenwriting, a subject I’m particularly sensitive to given my current state of mind on the subject (you know, wanting to write my own).
Performances aside, Gravity is a sight to behold. From moment one, as the radio audio between Houston and astronauts quietly rises to audible and the shuttle and its crew come into focus around the horizon of Earth miles below, one is locked in to what’s unfolding on screen. The film’s opening sequence is a single 17-minute shot, an achievement in itself not just in length but dimension. Cuarón’s cinematographer must’ve had to re-learn his craft (yes, it’s a man. I checked.) for this film, as the camera cycles free-wheeling around the zero-gravity atmosphere, capturing subjects and characters from literally every angle, a far cry from the standard Earth-based approach.
Within this first precedent-setting sequence, we begin a zoom in that seems unassuming at first, as we focus in on Dr. Ryan Stone’s face as she’s confronting the reality of the situation – that she may be lost at space for good. It doesn’t take long to realize that this single shot is in fact wholly unique. So slow it’s nearly imperceptible, we get closer and closer and closer to the glass front of Stone’s helmet. And without so much as a frame lost, we are inside the helmet. Snap! Just like that. The sound mix changes ever so slightly, our perspective is now Stone’s, and we’re seeing the desolation in front of her, with her.
And then, as seamlessly as we’ve entered her world we leave it. The camera zooms just as imperceptibly back out, and pop! We’re back out of the helmet, back in space and backing up away from Stone to take in the whole scene again, wide shot.
I’ve seen my fair share of movies, right? I’ve seen old movies and really old movies, movies with astronomical budgets and movies with no budget to speak of. I have never, ever, ever seen a shot like this. Am I crazy? Does it exist somewhere that Cuarón can give credit to his style? If it does, please show me, seriously. Because until I see it, I’m going to go ahead and give Cuarón every credit in the book for this incredible achievement. In an art from over one hundred years old, where anyone and pick up a camera and seemingly everything’s been done, Cuarón’s just went and did something new. I imagine it’s the way Picasso felt when he started painting portraits in abstract. It’s still the art form we’re familiar with, of course – and yet, the edges we’re comfortable with have been completely disregarded redrawn. For the better.
Of course, all the fancy camera tricks (though they are so much more than that!) wouldn’t amount to much without a script to support them. And here Cuarón delivers, too. In true sci-fi form, the story itself is far-fetched. Is it really possible that the International Space Station is so close to the Chinese Station? Is it really likely that our protagonist would think to bring with her into her escape pod a fire extinguisher while the station burns up around her, and then remember it again when she’s got to vault herself over to the passing Chinese station? Clearly, no.
But in all its far-fetched sequence of events, the film never once lost me. If we go to the movies to be entertained, to escape reality – well, Cuarón obviously got that message and made good on it. More than once I had to remind myself to breath, having stopped as I waited to see what happened next; or had to force my muscles to relax, so tense with anticipation that my whole body responded.
Cuarón builds for us an entirely plausible story arc. When we begin, we meet a scientist on a space mission who’s all business, who’d rather risk being killed by space debris than leave data uncollected. In moments of seamless character development, in dialogue that does just what it’s supposed to do – reveal character, move the story forward – we learn our scientist was a mother, that she lost her daughter unexpectedly, that when she’s not buried in work, she drives without purpose just to forget the pain and loss. Cuarón sets high stakes with his lead, and we invest willingly. And as each arc dips to new desperate lows – an empty fuel tank, another round of space debris, a deployed parachute tethering the escape pod to a burning space station – we are raked over the coals again and again.
When you set the stakes that high, the reward has to be even more incredible; the payoff has to negate all the turmoil. And does it ever, both at every low of Act II that resolves in finding a way out, finding a “what’s next” moment to start you breathing again, and in the resolution of Act III that, as I’ve shared here, had me feeling my own kind of weightlessness as I left the theater.
Not every film can (or should) expect so much of its audiences. If every film was as exhausting to watch as Gravity, it wouldn’t be special anymore. Audiences would grow tired of the constant emotional game play and would eventually write it off. But every film, if it does its job, seeks to extract some degree of that investment from its audiences. Every film – comedy, drama, romance, suspense, mystery, you name it – should evoke something from its audiences. When you realize the nth degree to which the art of film is capable of doing so – as is the case with Gravity – making a film that doesn’t achieve even a skosh of the same reaction is, well, doing it wrong.
Gravity succeeds in every way that matters: the story is exceptional in its genre; the filmmaking is as groundbreaking as space travel was in its day; and the key performance elevates an already impressive framework. There are many movies yet to see this year, but this one has set itself firmly in the lead of awards conversations, and in the pantheon of moviemaking, too.