‘Gravity’ Soars… or, something to that effect

Roger Ebert once said that the great films show their title twice – once at the beginning, and once more at the end, to remind you of what you just saw, and so you can go tell all your friends. Gravity is so confident in its greatness that it displays its title not twice but THRICE: once at the beginning and TWICE during its end credits. Of course, having James Cameron declare your movie as one of the best space films of all time will do a lot to bolster that confidence.

Gravity was certainly on my list of most anticipated films for 2013, not least because it is Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s first film in seven years. While his most popular film is probably his adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a favorite for many and widely considered one of the most ‘cinematic’ of the Potter films, he also directed one of my favorite films of all time, Children of Men. Aside from creating a frighteningly palpable near-future dystopia that set the framework for a series of excellent performances, Children of Men is also renowned for its technical virtuosity. Namely, several scenes, many of them action sequences, that are shot seemingly in one take. Of course, digital manipulation and clever editing allowed enabled these shots to be so long, but the blending of different takes are so seamless and the actual shots so complex that the scenes are simply overwhelming to behold. For Gravity, it seems like Cuarón and his longtime cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki – arguably one of cinema’s greatest living eyes – decided to take this method of shooting and make practically an entire movie out of it.

Of course, Gravity has a doozy of a premise to begin with. Starting on the US Space Shuttle Explorer, Sandra Bullock is Dr. Ryan Stone, a rookie astronaut on her first space mission, while George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, a NASA veteran on his last mission. They are also accompanied by Shariff (Paul Sharma), a character who is not featured in the advertising and is Indian. One guess what happens to him.

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Rhymes with ‘Shmed Fashed Fin.’

Anyway, in the film’s opening shot, Mission Control (the voice of Ed Harris, which is a nice little film buff in-joke) mentions that the Russians have remotely destroyed one of their old satellites, and that they should be on the lookout for the slight possibility of incoming debris. Of course, that possibility becomes a terrifying reality, and as per Donald J. Kessler’s nightmare scenario, the debris from the Russian satellite crashes into other debris, crashing into other satellites, creating more debris, crashing into more satellites, creating more debris. Debris moving at a high velocity and coming right towards our protagonists. Explorer is quickly destroyed, Bullock and Clooney its only survivors, floating untethered in space. Fortunately for them, Clooney comes with a NASA-approved space-jetpack, but that’ll only get them so far. With oxygen running low and communications to Earth severed, their only hope is to try and make it to the International Space Station and pray there’s still a rescue pod to take them home. Oh, and they’ve only got 90 minutes before the debris circles back around.

Needless to say, things are kind of intense.

This kind of material requires strong actors, and one could certainly do worse than Bullock and Clooney. For a number of reasons, Bullock is the one does most of the dramatic heavy-lifting, and she carries the film ably. This is sometimes a thankless task, especially when she’s saddled with some of the story’s more maudlin elements. It’s not that her tragic backstory isn’t interesting per se, but it’s not particularly original and, though its metaphorical implications are interesting, doesn’t really do a lot to further the story or make it more intense than it already is/ (Not to mention that it’s identical to the tragedy suffered by Children of Men’s protagonist.) It also doesn’t help that she’s saddled with a handful of sappy speeches; “It’s gonna be a hell of a ride” does not an effective denouement make. Not these days, anyway. 

But truthfully, these complaints feel almost like nitpicking when truly comprehending the task at hand. It’s easy to imagine being terrified by the film’s events. To be terrified, convincingly, for the course of an entire picture, is nothing short of an achievement. And Bullock carries it the whole way, never missing a beat, never looking like she’s acting, expressing the sheer terror and the instinct to survive in her body language, her voice, her breath. And though I take issue with some Gravity’s more schmaltzy scenes… well, I guess I really liked some of its other (arguably) schmaltzy scenes. Such as Bullock, in a brief respite from danger, curling slowly, gracefully, beautifully into the fetal position. In what may be the film’s best scene, Bullock accidentally intercepts a transmission from a Chinese man who cannot speak English. How the scene plays out – what Bullock hears, her reactions to it, Steven Price’s beautiful music (also a brief respite from an otherwise appropriately tense score), what the camera draws your eye to – was something I found deeply moving. 

George Clooney, on the other hand, is… George Clooney. Charming. Wise-cracking. Cool as a cucumber. In some ways, it’s disappointing that he isn’t really given the opportunity to stretch, considering the severity of the material and that he’s more than capable of meeting it. But then again… he’s George Clooney.

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I mean, hey, I’d fuck him.

But when it comes right down to it, what Gravity will truly be remembered for is the sheer enormity of its technical achievements. Shot over the course four years, spending two of them in post-production (a lifeline very similar to James Cameron’s Avatar), Gravity is simply dizzying in figurative and very, very literal ways. To know what went into film’s making is ambitious enough as to make you tired just from reading it. But then there’s the film’s opening shot, which feels like it goes on for a solid 10 minutes. It begins with a stationary shot of the Earth, before slowly allowing the sounds, followed by the sight, of the astronauts to float into frame. From then on it moves languidly across the space shuttle itself, swooping around poles and people and wires, zooming in on faces framed in helmets before pulling back to show something else and then zooming in again. And then the debris comes. All in one fell swoop. All in one shot. 

The second shot of the film, which probably goes on for less than 10 minutes but feels that long anyway, shows Bullock tumbling away into the darkness, untethered from her ship, spinning and spinning and spinning with no way of stopping. As her panicked breath – and the equally panicked music – grow louder and louder, the camera slowly pushes its way towards Bullock’s face, eventually actually pushing through her visor and into the helmets itself. (This particular trick of pushing into and through things has appeared in various Cuarón works. Two of his other favorite things to do, splashing things on the screen and stop-start music, also make plentiful appearances in Gravity and yet somehow manage to avoid feeling old.) The camera then pans from her face and out towards her view of the stars, spinning around her, the warning lights of her suit flashing against her visor, the alarms bouncing around her head, and yours. I’ve always thought that images of space were beautiful, but the actual thought of being out in space – no up, down, left, right, no gravity (hey!) – has always been terrifying to me. Of Gravity’s unsettling scenes, of which there are legion, this one in particular may be the closest you ever come to experiencing that particular brand of horror.

It feels unfair to compare Gravity to Children of Men as much as I have because they are such different stories. But in a lot of ways I can’t help it. Children of Men didn’t just create a completely believable near-apocalyptic world, but it also created characters that were written and acted with true vivacity while also being given the space to reveal themselves at a deliberate pace. By the very nature of Gravity’s plot, it’s kind of hard to get as invested in the characters themselves because the struggle for survival so all-encompassing. But then again, it’s so rare a movie, any movie – especially one that’s just 90 minutes long – can be such a physical experience. An exhausting one at that. And it’s also very rare for a movie to make you genuinely happy to see sunshine.

Recommended. See it in theaters if you can. (I’m planning to see it again in IMAX.)

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2 comments on “‘Gravity’ Soars… or, something to that effect

  1. Joe says:

    Thanks for sharing contextual and technical insights that will add to my appreciation of “Gravity” when I eventually get down to it. Your descriptions were so evocative, I hope the movie lives up to them!

    I missed the pumpkin reference…must be a generational thing.

    • gemcgee2013 says:

      Thanks for the kind words!

      And as for the pumpkin thing, it’s nothing generational. I was just trying to find a visual equivalent for what happens to that poor third astronaut’s face. Of course, I wondered how well that joke would translate. I guess now I know.

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