At once intimate and epic, Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama does things differently than its counterparts – and way better.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 90 minutes
Films like Gravity are one in a million. Besides reminding everyone of the incredible visual talents he has that never overwhelm the story he tells, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, who has honed his skills at directing long but dynamic scenes with a single take, ambitiously faced the challenge of a minimal cast and has delivered a film for the ages.
Although an opening title card informs those viewers who have never seen Alien or read its famous tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream,” that there is no sound out in space, and that life for humans is impossible in such a void, the silence throughout the film is truly deafening.
Drifting high above the blue marble, NASA scientists Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are leisurely at work on the exterior of their spacecraft. The experienced Kowalsky is listening to some music, propelling himself from side to side with his jetpack and having a lot of fun. Stone is a little more tense. She’s young, and until recently her familiarity with space had been limited to time spent in a simulator, always with disastrous results.
NASA’s mission control, on the other end of the line, patiently listens to Kowalsky tell his stories for the umpteenth time, and all the while we are immersed in the beauty of Planet Earth’s blues and greens in the background. This may be the first feature film that actually warrants the IMAX ticket.
But even while we are awestruck by the beauty of the scene, shot in a seemingly unbroken take for several minutes, there is a gentle shift toward exceptional danger. First, Stone asks Kowalsky to switch off the music, which is being pumped through her headset as well, so that she can concentrate. The silence, only disrupted by the duo’s breathing, suddenly makes for a much more dramatic soundtrack. Stone is struggling to finish her work, and Houston is not picking up whatever she is doing. And then, suddenly, chaos envelops the scene.
Debris from the destruction of a Russian satellite hurtles their way, causing a chain reaction with far-reaching effects that will last until the end of the film. It’s mostly small bits of material, but at the velocity they’re traveling they are miniature mobiles of death, and when the spacecraft starts to break up, we realise how quickly this can turn catastrophic.
What makes Gravity so exhilarating is not only the very obvious technical mastery of its director, but the combination of elements that are perfectly controlled yet never feel like they are calculated to elicit a particular response from the viewer. The minimalism of the cast, the setting and the action may well lull us into a false sense of comfort, but every so often we get another jolt to the system because we are reminded how perilous the vast emptiness of space can be to an earthling.
As Stanley Kubrick knew all too well when he made his landmark science-fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, silence is not only necessary because it faithfully recreates the conditions in space but also because its effect on the viewer can be devastating. Whereas Kubrick’s film had an astronaut’s oxygen supply cut during a spacewalk by a disgruntled computer, and a soundtrack that cut all sound as we saw the poor man drifting out into space, Gravity has scenes of large-scale destruction in complete silence, which is absolutely chilling to watch.
Stone and Kowalsky survive the first incident, but as the story progresses, their oxygen tanks running empty and them having to face recurring disasters, all the result of that Russian satellite exploding offscreen, we see how small things can lead to heavy damage.
Cuarón, whose director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki already did some terrific visual work with single takes in the director’s Children of Men, here again uses special effects in ways that bring us closer to the story. At one point, the camera is right up against Sandra Bullock as she tumbles farther and farther away from Earth. Every time she breathes, we edge closer, until the camera seems to penetrate the helmet of her space suit. It continues, until it turns around (inside the helmet!) and shows us her point of view.
The only misstep takes place late in the film, when the camera becomes an invisible presence pointing out a potential hazard that the character in the scene fails to notice.
But Gravity is not only about the visuals. While mostly focusing on the drama to survive the constant ordeal and steer clear of flying debris that only accumulates, it also has some beautiful moments that create a connection between us and them. To reveal the content of these moments would be to give away too much, but one particularly effective gem comes in the form of a radio conversation in which neither speaker can see or understand the other, but ends with us emotionally wrecked.
Gravity does not stand in awe at the mystery of space that made 2001: A Space Odyssey such a hit and still fuels discussions about its meaning. It does not try to reinvent the wheel; it is a story about staying alive in the most desolate place imaginable, and Cuarón’s handling of the space-fiction material is epic but never self-important and takes our breath away.