Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
USA and UK, 2013
By now, Alfonso Cuarón has pretty much earned the crown of being one of the best, if not the best, technicians in modern cinema. His last three films—Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, and now Gravity—all demonstrate a playful and intelligent command of space, his camera always roving in, around, and out of locations whenever possible. Gravity raises the bar for technical prowess in mainstream filmmaking, and Cuarón doesn’t shy away from the challenge of a film set entirely in space. This is nothing short of a flawless technical exercise, a frequently intense and relentless theme-park ride of a movie. The real downside is that Cuarón could’ve made more than just a ride.
It’s not exactly an insult to dub Gravity that way, as its lead character, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), literally dubs one of her various attempts to get back home as “one hell of a ride.” And she’s not wrong. Dr. Stone is on her first Space Shuttle mission, while the rakish mission commander (George Clooney) is on his final go-round. Things turn pear-shaped almost immediately, as debris from a satellite explosion knocks out communications and sets Dr. Stone and her veteran colleague adrift, with only a few options to survive. It’s not an exaggeration to state that, with the exception of one additional character trait, that’s pretty much all there is to Gravity. The complexity and emotional depth to Cuarón’s best film, Children of Men, is mostly absent. In its place is a whirlwind of dazzling special effects and deliberately long takes courtesy of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
If it sounds like Gravity is an excuse for Cuarón to show off what he can do, that’s what the film feels like. To his credit, what Cuarón has to show off is legitimately stunning. The CGI in Gravity is amazing, all the more so because there’s barely a second that goes by without some amount of computer effects. Even in moments when Dr. Stone isn’t spinning out of control—as she is when the first debris cloud hits—the landscape is virtual in a sense, while always appearing real. Consider all the big-budget blockbusters that usually sport a handful of moments, or full sequences, that feel fake, the greenscreen effects standing out painfully. Certainly, anyone even remotely familiar with Bullock or Clooney will know they’re not really astronauts in the inky blackness of outer space; however, setting that aside, Gravity is a visual marvel, proof that special effects can be integrated excellently into a film without feeling excessive or distracting.
Lubezki’s cinematography is also of note, as should be expected. Cuarón’s love of the long take is in full force here; the first shot of the film lasts over 10 minutes (although, of course, like every other long take in the film, it’s aided tremendously by those special effects), the scope always changing. The opening starts expansively, the camera waiting patiently for the Space Shuttle, and its astronauts, to drift into focus. After that, the camera dances and spins around each of the players—there’s a third on the mission, but read into the fact that he isn’t played by a name actor however you like—until fiery pieces of satellite come into view. Though none of the other takes reach this length (and Gravity is only 90 minutes, so it’s hard to imagine anything else comes close), the ambitious camerawork is awe-inspiring. In this respect, Cuarón and Lubezki have topped the equally arresting photography in Children of Men.
Bullock and Clooney—though the former is, without question, the lead—are both fine, but they feel less like characters than vessels. While the script, by Cuarón and his son Jonás, doesn’t spend too much time filling in either astronaut, the one trait that is almost overemphasized is Stone’s lack of experience. There is no moment where Stone proves herself to have hidden depths of intelligence in manning escape pods or space-walking. While this consistency of character is, perhaps, laudatory, there’s something a bit awkwardly comical about watching her thumb her way through an instructor’s manual for how to maneuver and detach said escape pod. And, unfortunately, Stone’s greatest moment of quick thinking is either a direct homage or a blatant rip-off to a very recent science-fiction film, thus emphasizing the story’s lack of originality in spite of the effects seeming like a breakthrough. (To name the other movie would likely encroach on spoiler territory, but if you’re interesting in guessing, don’t limit your choices to the realm of live-action.)
As a sumptuous feast for the eyes, Gravity doesn’t disappoint. Alfonso Cuarón and Warner Bros. Pictures were said to have agreed that the film should be pushed back from its original release date of November 2012 so the special effects work could be done just right. In an age when shifting release dates and extra post-production work are supposedly signs of bad news, this film is an exception. There’s no question that the special effects in Gravity are among the best of the modern age. That he apparently made the film for under $100 million is as jaw-dropping as the visuals are. But anyone who craves another dark and haunting adult science-fiction film as Children of Men may be slightly let down that Alfonso Cuarón’s follow-up leans hard on technique, and skimps on story and character.
— Josh Spiegel