by Tony Dayoub
Alfonso Cuarón—the director who so flamboyantly enhanced the dystopic Children of Men with a number of extended single-take shots nearly impossible to deconstruct—opens his newest film Gravity with its own dizzying, extended take which I clocked at 20 minutes long. It brilliantly introduces laidback veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and his high-strung novice subordinate, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) on a routine spacewalk. The shot establishes the majesty of their work environment in space and slowly ratchets up the unsettling feeling that in this unnatural environment the dangers are far from predictable. Emmanuel Lubezki's constantly pirouetting camera contributes to the stomach-churning feeling of disquiet that gradually increases as the shot goes on way past what most audiences are subliminally accustomed to. So when an unforeseen collision demolishes the space shuttle the two astronauts are tethered to, the shock and terror is more than palpable. In 3D on an IMAX screen, it is unforgivingly all-encompassing.
Gravity is a major accomplishment in cinema. It builds on the promise of James Cameron's epic Avatar, which pioneered the use of 3D digital effects and large format exhibition to create an immersive experience for moviegoers. What Cuarón manages to do is fashion the same kind of enveloping journey on an intimate level. Bullock's less experienced Stone is our entry point into Gravity, and throughout the trials the movie throws our way, she is the surrogate through which we experience them. This is underscored immediately after her vessel's destruction by a camera move in which Cuarón and Lubezki somehow manage to dolly in from a close-up of Bullock, from right outside of her helmet to inside of it, momentarily granting us her point of view. Our concern for her goes from merely distressing to emphatically terrifying when circumstances separate her from her more experienced commander. It is the first rebirth Stone undergoes—she is now her own counsel. For Cuarón, it is an opportunity to reframe Gravity as a continually evolving work of suspense in which the stakes grow considerably higher and higher for Stone—and in effect us—with each new obstacle encountered.
In Gravity's opening scene, a nauseated Stone complains to Kowalski about the country music he's transmitting over his audio receiver. She says that space appeals to her because she "likes the silence." Indeed, what we eventually learn about Stone is that space represents a cold, emotionless refuge from the backlog of pain she has accrued back on Earth. With the comfort of Clooney's wisecracking Kowalski absent for a good deal of the film, Gravity transforms into the story of one woman's survival in the vast, solitude of space. A brief respite inside a space station from the recurring assaults Stone contends with represents another moment of rebirth. This Cuarón and Lubezki explicitly state when Stone sheds her spacesuit and momentarily floats in a fetal position before a new hindrance arises to be overcome—now, she is even more vulnerable in her own skin.
If there is one flaw in Cuarón's depiction of Stone's ordeal, it is that, somewhat unrealistically, this character is forced to give us a running commentary on the events of Gravity. It is an unnecessary concession to audiences. More precisely, it is an underestimation of their ability to appreciate the scale of the stresses Stone is under without having to spell it out through Stone's self-therapy sessions. Gravity establishes that Stone is a fundamentally introverted person who prefers silence. Why not utilize that to allow the audience a chance to further identify with her by allowing us the blankness on which to project our own feelings on to the character. A little under a week from now I'll be reviewing J.C. Chandor's All is Lost in which Robert Redford finds himself in similar circumstances at sea. At least one way that film is superior to Gravity is that it trusts its audience to stay with its character even considering the movie's (realistic) lack of dialogue. Gravity undercuts the Stone character by de-emphasizing her professionalism and feeding into common stereotypes of females in peril (particularly cinematic ones).
It's only a tiny quibble about what is otherwise a stunning motion picture. Gravity submerges you quite intensely into its crisp, cold, contentious space setting. There is little reprieve from its relentless onslaught of sensory attacks, save for instances demonstrating Cuarón has an equal admiration for moments both small and grand. He takes the time to focus our attention on a Marvin the Martian keychain and a dental retainer floating among the wreckage of Stone and Kowalski's obliterated shuttle, absurd remnants of the very human casualties still onboard when it was destroyed. They are reminders that for all of its epic ambitions, Gravity is as intimate a film as one can get in 21st century cinema.