Review: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
Since Alfonso Cuarón’s audacious dystopian sci-fi film, Children of Men, was released in 2006, cinephiles everywhere have been wondering how, and later as the years ticked on, when he would follow-up on the ambition and promise of that film. Now at last the wait is over. Gravity has been released, and those who fail to find the movie a worthwhile follow-up to Cuarón’s last will be few indeed.
Gravity is the fairly straight-forward survival story of one Dr. Ryan Stone, played here by Sandra Bullock who inhabits the role seamlessly, stripping away her girl-next-door movie star schtick and replacing it with the lived-in gravitas of a cautious, vulnerable woman. Stone finds herself in a terrifying position as she, a rookie astronaut, becomes one of two surviving members of her crew when rogue debris decimates her space station. The other, Matt Kowalsky, played by a wise-cracking Clooney who provides some breezy levity to the film, is fortunately for Stone a veteran astronaut, but it isn’t too long before he must cut the cord leaving Stone to fend for herself against the awesome void that surrounds her.
While some might take issue with a story arc that’s stripped down to only its barest essentials, Cuarón’s vision necessitates such a minimalistic approach. The techs here are breathtakingly superb. Those fans of Cuarón’s carefully constructed, and much lauded, intricately choreographed long takes will find much to celebrate here. In one gorgeous shot the camera examines Stone swirling helplessly in space’s un-ending starry maw, then travels into her helmet for a point of view shot and then back out again to focus on Bullock’s fear-ridden face. So much vulnerability, wonder and terror expressed, all without the help of any cuts. And kudos must be given not only to the special effects team who create (and explode) so many space stations, but also to Clooney and, especially, Bullock who make their physically demanding performances look effortless. It’s easy to forget, as Stone flies across a space station, looking for the tools which are essential to her survival, that the weightless with which she moves is an illusion fabricated by wires and that Bullock had to train for months before shooting a single frame to achieve this effect.
What Gravity essentially is, is a story of woman vs. nature, a meditation on the smallness of humanity against the vastness of space. A story that humbles us, shows us how vulnerable and childlike humans are in spite of all the technology, really only a series of intricate toys, we use to protect us from the unfriendly elements and give us the illusion of safety until the elements take over and that illusion is stripped away. It’s no surprise then, that Gravity is awash with birth and evolutionary symbols; Stone is tethered to a protective Kowalsky by a figurative umbilical cord, and when at last she reaches the safety of the Russian space station she strips herself of her clothes and stretches, before floating, fetal-like inside the round womb-like space. The steady drum of Stone’s heartbeat, a reminder of everything that is at stake, only pushes the point further. And yet that steady heartbeat also provides the hopeful thread which runs through the entire film. As much as Cuarón is interested in examining humanity’s weaknesses, he is also charmed by the steady persistence with which we fight for survival and the movie is also a tribute to that very human strength.
But beyond all that, Cuarón manages to make Gravity a whole lot of fun. It overwhelms the senses, it terrifies, it entertains. Those looking only for an enjoyable, heart-pounding, thrill-riding ninety minutes in the theatre will find just that. And those looking for something with a little more depth will find what they are looking for too.
It seems impossible at this point to imagine a scenario in which Bullock isn’t nominated. She is the steady anchor to a gripping enjoyable film and it’s possible that she, and the movie, will be able to pull George Clooney into Oscar’s orbit for a role that, while not exactly outside his wheelhouse, allows him to do what he does best and exhibit a bit of charm over the proceedings. Gravity also has a great shot at a lot of the techs and fans of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, long-time collaborator of both Cuarón and Terrence Malick, will be pleased to see he has a chance of finally seeing Oscar gold. Despite a general reluctance to pick a sci-fi movie and its director for Oscar predictions it feels safe to say, at least at this point, that Cuarón and the movie itself will be among the nominees. – Rebecca Hirsch Garcia
[author]Rebecca Hirsch Garcia is a writer and a Canadian cinephile. She watches too many movies.[/author]