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Film Review: Gravity

Gravity (2013; Directed by Alfonso Cuaron)

“Either way, it’ll be one hell of a ride.” These words, spoken by distressed astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as her harrowing and dangerous ordeal in space nears one of two, entirely opposing possible conclusions, reflect a stoically humourous existential acceptance and evoke a catchphrase-reliant action movie scenario. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is definitely more the former than the latter, though its elegant long-take sequences of motion, collision, and corporeal peril are visionary evolutionary successors of the played-out “action scene”. Gravity is not quite as relentless as you might have heard, but it’s a shining, next-level model of what Roger Ebert memorably called the Bruised Forearm Movie (though it’s less frequently remembered that he coined the term to apply to the mixed-bag Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which deserves it much less than either its franchise predecessor or successor).

Years in the making, Gravity is 80% fashioned entirely in a computer, set almost entirely in Earth’s orbit, and features only two fully visible actors (Bullock and George Clooney, who plays an experienced, wisecracking mission commander). Yet for such an involved technical exercise, it’s a richly textured humanistic film, almost experimental in its direct experiential flow but also completely accessible to a wider audience (if you don’t believe that, check the box office numbers). A critic whose name eludes me said of The Lord of the Rings that artists get lost in productions of such size, difficulty and technical complexity. The aesthetic result of that decade-old trilogy demonstrated that Peter Jackson survived those films with his vision intact (though perhaps not the comparably massive passion project that followed them), and the same can definitely be said of Alfonso Cuaron and Gravity.

Gravity opens with a minutes-long single shot that begins with a space shuttle and its space-walking crew appearing as a miniscule dot at the curvature’s edge of the planet, floating into view while performing a routine servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope, cracking jokes and trading personal details. Floating weightlessly with the astronauts, the camera never looks away, never cuts to another angle as the destructive debris field of a damaged Russian satellite (those Russians, ever the antagonists, even when totally unseen) brings silent disaster down (or, more accurately, around) upon them. A conventional perspective would demand the slapping of a descriptive superlative like tour de force on this sequence, but such a term emphasizes artifice and Gravity has not a smidgeon of that, despite its elaborate technical construction. Or, I would argue, it has no artifice precisely because of its elaborate technical construction.

Cuaron has developed the use of long takes into his particular aesthetic signature. Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men both utilized long, unbroken single shot sequences to tremendous dramatic effect; even his game-changing, aesthetic-shifting Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, used long (if not quite unbroken) takes to create the impression of a continuous flow of images during the elegant, beguiling Time Turner sequence that forms the film’s climax. Gravity is the most complete illustration of the power of this effect, expanding on the vivid irruption of tragic, disastrous occurences into the casual, content stream of everyday interpersonal interaction demonstrated in the memorable car ambush in Children of Men. The depiction of these events gain an added vividness and immediacy through the employment of this uninterrupted camera perspective. It’s a impressive display of technical craft, but it’s not merely Cuaron showing off. There’s a specific affect that he’s looking to achieve through these shots, and he does achieve it very strongly in Gravity.

The achievements of Gravity as a piece of exquisitely-crafted filmmaking and as visceral, transporting entertainment are ample, but its political or metaphorical resonance is less so. Cuaron (who co-wrote the screenplay with his son Jonas) plays with general, syncretic religious imagery (Christian and Buddhist icons feature prominently in successive Russian and Chinese spacecraft that Stone occupies), and his closing shot is a connection to human evolution that constitutes Gravity‘s sole overt reference to that seminal space movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But Gravity is much more invested in its characters’ perspective and developing psychology in the face of crisis. Bullock, a consistently undervalued actor who receives some perfunctory critical praise from time to time but is obviously quite beloved by mass film audiences, is a compelling, sympathetic, relatable presence at the centre of the movie. It’s to Cuaron’s credit, in terms of specific emotional affect as well as of progressivism in onscreen representation of women, that he focuses on her rather than the charming but more sarcastic and detached Clooney. Bullock doesn’t even really need the slightly cloying backstory element of a dead daughter (who is named Sarah, which is always the name of an unglimpsed dead child mentioned only in dialogue and must therefore be a screenwriter in-joke at this point) to generate sympathy and engagement. She’s that good, and the film around her is up to her level.

It is worth considering Gravity in wider terms, nevertheless, as a metaphorical statement on the current state of manned space travel. Its release followed hard on the heels of NASA’s announcement of the suspension of manned space missions, and despite the criticism of that policy change in scientific and wider circles, Gravity comes across as an imaginative worst-case scenario that justifies its wisdom. If Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, whose release followed the more minimal Gravity by a year, was an aesthetic and intellectual argument for a human re-engagement with the exploration of space in the face of changing funding priorities, then Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a visceral first-person exemplification of the mortal threat of space, which amazingly is yet to claim a human life (the atmospheric explosion of Challenger and break-up of Columbia aside) but by the end of this film has claimed the entirety of mankind’s flimsy orbital infrastructure. Gravity is a species of horror-suspense film with the hostile but impassive emptiness of space as its masked slasher monster, and it emphasizes the hanging-on-by-our-fingernails margin of survival for people in this unforgiving environment rather than the existential and philosophical possibilities of adventure into the stars. Either way, it’s one hell of a ride.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. January 6, 2015 at 4:15 pm
  2. June 27, 2016 at 12:50 pm

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