A Little Princess now seems light years away, but let go of the groundbreaking visual wonder that skyrockets Alfonso Cuarón’s latest into the filmmaking future and you are left with the same concise storytelling that made little Sara Crewe’s childhood nightmare such a heartrending family friendly success. That was 1995, his first taste of Hollywood. Since then, the director’s been picking up tricks of the trade, toying with big budget CGI effects in his take of Harry Potter and the complex long take in Children of Men, but now we bare witness to him forging ahead with the 3D obsessed James Cameron and his pixel pushing army by his side to create one of the most unique cinematic experiences ever projected on the silver screen. Gravity is like nothing else.
Set in the silence of space, orbiting 600 kilometers above the Earth are an unlikely pair – a seasoned astronaut named Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and a baggage-bearing medical engineer named Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who’s still just warming up to the final frontier – find themselves suited up conducting routine maintenance, tethered securely to their space station. Friendly banter over the in-suit airwaves serve as both their distraction from omnipresent danger and their direct line to Mission Control back at home on the ground. All seems well until a distant explosion sends a hail of shrapnel rocketing through space in perfect alignment with NASA’s craft.
Without divulging the nitty-gritty plot details, Cuarón’s film is brazenly simple in the broader arch of story construction. It’s bare-bones description would be that of humanity venturing into a situation where they have no real business being and things go wrong – exceptionally wrong. This is a worst case scenario situation, but sticking to the lowest common denominator in terms of plot structure allows the director to go full bore into the intricacies of visual storytelling. From the opening frame of the film we are experiencing the freedom of space right along with Matt and Ryan, Cuarón’s lens fluidly moving from one singular event to the next in one incredible unbroken take. We intake information as the camera moves and focuses on each tiny detail. Amazingly, the majority of the film transpires this way, with only but a handful of meaningful cuts breaking up master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s beautifully embellished camera work.
Despite the inclination to pander to cinematic expectations with the aural experience of explosions in space, Cuarón takes pains to stick with the realities of science, being literally upfront about the fact that there is nothing to carry sound in space. To compensate for this fact, he has affixed a bombastic score by Steven Price that gloriously accentuates the suspense and heightens the action, but also plays to elementary emotional responses through to the end. It often feels a bit cheap, but it still works extraordinarily well thanks to the continuous character driven narrative that is brought to life by Bullock and Clooney in top form. Put simply, this is quite possibly Sandra’s finest performance. And while Clooney’s typical ultra-suave man’s man in Matt doesn’t necessarily come off as a believable astronaut, he is the perfect counterpoint to Ryan’s bitter ‘I hate space’ persona. Their relationship is woven together with a series of wistful yarns in the conversational constructs of classic rom-com, but fascinatingly free from the cultural community in which they would normally transpire.
There have been countless films featuring lengthy uncut scenes and there have been countless films that indulge the dangers of exploring the final frontier, but there has never been a film like Gravity. This is a film that will be talked about long after the special effects become gratingly dated. Cuarón has created a masterpiece of deep space suspense that pushes the process of blockbuster filmmaking into the future with the magic of cutting edge lighting, motion capture and CGI work, but let’s not forget that the film is more than a technical marvel. It also digs into the philosophical debate of why we choose to risk people’s lives in space and what it takes to overcome lose in the mundanity of pedestrian life. This isn’t a must see only for the sake of mind-blowing visuals, but because it bears all the storytelling hallmarks of a great work of Hollywood cinema.
Reviewed on September 13 at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival – Special Presentation Programme.