*** (3 stars)
d – Alfonso Cuaron
w – Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron
ph – Emmanuel Lubezki
pd – Andy Nicholson
m – Steven Price
ed – Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger
cos – Jany Temime
p – Alfonso Cuaron, David Heyman
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
As a child, I loved rollercoasters. Though my relationship with them was somewhat odd. I would love them on conception discovering. I loved them on the car-ride over. I loved them waiting in line to get in. But as soon as I was strapped in I would, every time, suffer a realisation of “Wait, what am I doing?”. However, my words after the rollercoaster ended were always “Let’s go again!”
As an adult, rollercoasters bore me. Movies are my rollercoasters. Seven years ago Alfonso Cuaron made one hell-of-a rollercoaster with Children of Men; a film set in a future where women have become infertile. His techniques as a filmmaker have always been in the foreground of his movies. By that, I mean he has never tried to hide the conspicuous personality of his filmmaking from the film itself. For example, his best film, Y Tu Mama Tambien, contains a narrator giving out rather meaningless information, all the while Cuaron’s camera hovers around whatever it wants to. Children of Men contains many practically-constructed long takes that add visceral levels to the already intense images on display (the most mind-boggling of which is a single take of a girl giving birth).
Both films seem like trial-runs compared to his latest: Gravity. But what makes Mr Cuaron a great filmmaker as opposed to just a handy carpenter is the bridge of compassion he seems to so effortlessly construct between his pawn-like characters and the audience. His bravura techniques are there not to parade, but to unify all of us to cross that bridge with him altogether. He was even able to make (for a brief 140 minutes at least) the asinine characters of the world of Harry Potter convincing in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, easily the best of the franchise.
Gravity is a rather thin movie on paper. It is another in a line of movies that have become quite fashionable in recent years: Movies that pin you down, shake you up, accelerate your pulse and leave you feeling happy to be alive. 127 Hours (2010) and Life of Pi (2012) are recent examples of this. An astronaut (George Clooney) and a medical engineer (Sandra Bullock) are stranded in outer space after an accident separates them from their spacecraft. That’s basically it. But what we actually experience is a 90 minute technical extravaganza. The film is basically told in real-time. We follow Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Commander Matt Kowalski (Clooney) as they try not to die. We are thrown into their situation immediately in an astonishing 15-minute opening shot by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
Gravity is such an easy film to regard. Each set-piece is more dumbfounding than the one before and the emotions on display are intense. Ms Bullock is asked to carry a lot of it on her shoulders and she more than meets her task. Ms Bullock, trained as a ballerina when she was a girl, is under borderline theatrical conditions here. Not since Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo has the physical countenances been so vitally important to movie’s female lead and Ms Bullock gives what is her best performance.
Mr Cuaron, Mr Lubezki, Production Designer Andy Nicholson and Visual Effects Supervisor Tim Webber create the most wholly believable vision of outer space yet seen on film. Having never been in outer space, I can’t know for sure. But like the greatest outer space film of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is not science fiction; it is science contingency. That, in conjecture with its scruffy screenplay, makes it more like a melodrama in a way; like Max Ophuls in space. Mr Lubezki in particular accomplishes a rather potent feat here where his only light source for the actor’s faces is earth’s refraction of the sun.
And yet, at the same time, Gravity is Mr Cuaron’s most conventional film to date. The screenplay is co-written with his son Jonas. The intellectual and philosophical aspects of the film (which will not be revealed here) feel - pardon the pun - more light-weight than they should. This is particularly evident in the film’s last 10 minutes which, although are just as beautiful as the rest of it (perhaps even more so), reach an inference that we’ve seen countless times before. But what makes these qualms irrelevant is the fact that Gravity is never pretentious about them. It lets us decide what it is intellectually and who we are philosophically.
This is why Mr Cuaron is a calibre of action filmmaker that others like James Cameron, George Lucas and Michael Bay can only dream of being; and Gravity certainly blows something like Avatar (2009) far, far away. For some reason, many strident highbrows want to deny the experience of watching the movie from the movie-watching experience. Anyone who tries to do this is a sucker. You are in a movie theatre. You’re not on the Titanic, you’re not in Casablanca, you’re not singin in the rain. But there is a clear difference between a brilliant rollercoaster and a brilliant movie. Gravity is the latter.