Alfonso Cuaron is a director known for his amazing visual acuity and high-tech mastery, delighting in upping the technical degree-of-difficulty ante for himself as anyone who witnessed his bravura four-minute single-tracking sleight-of-hand car sequence in Children of Men can attest.
But the damnedest thing about him is he’s also a hell of a writer, with a nuanced, layered approach that generally digs deeper and into tinier crevices than you would expect for a man so technically proficient (see Y Tu Mama, Tambien). Still, even he must have thought long and hard about shooting nearly an entire film in the simulated bleak, zero-gravity confines of space.
That his astounding new feature focuses more on the first two elements of his admirable repertoire than the latter takes little away from the enormous, visceral impact of the film, a breathless, 90-minute lost-in-space survival thriller that will leave you gulping for air and wringing your fingers into tension knots. As a result of his ingenuity and - one imagines - several thousand visual effects artists at his side, he has created a powerhouse of a film, a technical marvel and a full-fledged emotional splashdown.
I first saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival and tweeted immediately afterward, among other expansive expletives, that the film had likely singed my eyebrows.
The story is elemental, survival boiled down to its essence: A small crew of astronauts, including Capt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), are in the midst of uploading a new piece of hardware to the Hubble telescope in an extended spacewalk when an unforeseen debris cloud suddenly hurtles through and past the ship, wreaking havoc and leaving them the lone survivors of the tragic accident. What comes next is the duo’s increasingly frantic attempts to save themselves and return home in the midst of this celestial chaos.
Though the majority of critical buzz seemed to be overwhelmingly positive in Toronto, there were also grumblings that it was little more than a visual spectacle in search of a script. While I can allow the dialogue - much like the story itself - is on the straightforward Hollywood side (we are very quickly informed of Stone’s lost child and Kowalski’s womanizing, partying ways),getting stuck on that aspect is more than missing the forest for the trees, it’s like peering at the great pyramids and complaining about the composite of the mortar between the bricks.
I would also argue that the decision to use two of Hollywood’s biggest stars fits nicely with the film-as-spectacle vibe. It also helps that Clooney and Bullock are at the top of their games - the latter especially can expect to be contacted by the academy when the time comes. While it’s true they are largely playing to their basic cinematic stereotypes (he, winsome lothario filled with calm cheer; she, sassy, spunky chick who never loses her wry sense of humor - “I hate space,” she says flatly, after yet another insurmountable obstacle has presented itself), they are also hardly the real stars of the film. That honor goes to the sheer, visual spectacle that Cuaron and his team have so smoothly put together.
The opening scene, clocked unofficially at around 18 seemingly uninterrupted minutes, stands as a salvo as to what you can expect going forward. The shot begins at a far remove from the characters, the slowly rotating Earth dominating the left of the frame before the crew on their space walk slowly spin closer and closer. After the debris hits, the camera begins to dart and swoop through the frantic struggling of the survivors, finally drawing right up to and through Stone’s steam-shrouded helmet before actually entering her point of view, the terrifying abyss, the soft glow of her instrument cluster flashing on the inside of her visor, her hands frantically trying to grasp onto anything. Like the finest of third-person fiction voices, Cuaron’s camera is capable of going anywhere and capturing anything - later, in a moment of fourth-wall playfulness, a droplet of water actually hits the lens itself before shimmering away - repeatedly taking you inside the claustrophobic confines of Stone’s perspective and putting you virtually in her skin.
It’s an extremely potent trick that Cuaron uses to pulse-pounding effect throughout Stone’s, and the audience’s, ordeal. As is the director’s use of eerie, cosmic silence. “I could get used to it,” she says to Kowalski as they make their way to what they believe will be safety, but throughout the film, what we see becomes a good deal more shocking without any sound to give us a warning beforehand. In one stunning sequence, Stone struggles to hang on to the outer skin of a ship as more debris slices through its hull until it’s silently ripped apart in jagged shards of twisted metal that spread out like the paint spatters of a mad, expressionist artist. The soundtrack, too, which changes from sweeping orchestrations to rising, almost painfully loud swells, fills with just the right amount of high-wire tension.
Apart from everything else that works so well in the film, Cuaron, working with his longtime director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, has created something truly, mesmerizingly beautiful. Within the opening shot sequence, we witness the otherworldly, minimalist beauty of the cosmos, as well as the terrifying aspect of its vastness all at once. There are several shots of characters hurtling backward into the icy blackness of stars that will resonate in your head for weeks afterward. Cuaron might not have made the best film of the year, but he has certainly succeeded in making the most spectacular. I predict you’ll be hearing a great deal more about it in the days after its release. It will be a huge surprise if this doesn’t detonate in the pop culture atmosphere like a giant asteroid hitting the Pacific.
Gravity 89 Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris, Orto Ignatiussen, Paul Sharma, Amy Warren Director: Alfonso Cuaron Rating: PG-13, for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language Running time: 90 minutes