Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity hit me about as hard as any film ever has.
Nearly eleven months ago to the day the film screened for me, my father passed away after a long battle with cancer, and the emotional difficulties encountered both before and after his death completely and fundamentally altered the way I look at and interact with life and the world around me. I am not religious, but while there is a common (and hurtful) assumption that atheists ‘believe in nothing,’ I do spend a great deal of time thinking upon my place in the Universe, and the beliefs that I have forged, especially in the past year, are immensely personal and meaningful to me, and empower me to move forward even as the grief of my father’s death still haunts me.
Why Gravity affected me so greatly, then – I will admit to being persistently misty-eyed for the entirety of the film’s last half, and an uncontrollable emotional wreck on the car ride home – is because in this wondrous, glorious work of art, I saw my own beliefs up there on screen, personified through Cuarón’s incredible storytelling more eloquently than I could ever describe. Much has been made of the film’s awe-inspiring technical accomplishments, and indeed, Cuarón does nothing less than rework the basic cinematic language filmmakers have communicated in for nearly 100 years. The film is bold, innovative, and blindingly visionary to degrees modern cinema almost never approaches. Yet it is not the aesthetic achievements that make Gravity an outright masterpiece, but the way Cuarón uses them to realize and empower his fundamentally simple – and extraordinarily profound – message about what it means to live in an existence where we are so utterly dwarfed by the scale of the cosmos surrounding us.
It is not the meaning of life Cuarón is interested in – that is an impossible and fool-hardy question to broach – but the most basic reasons we choose to go on living that form the foundation of the film. Such issues have, in fact, lain at the heart of his work for a long while. Even just looking at his most recent two films, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (far and away the best of the Potter flicks and, in my opinion, one of the single greatest studio blockbusters in Hollywood history) and Children of Men, each deals with characters discovering how and why to live after experiencing immense tragedy or hardship. Azkaban is all about the transitional point in Harry’s life wherein he chooses to move foreword from the grief of his past, emboldened by it rather than wallowing in it, while Children of Men is even more direct, presenting a world in which life itself seems futile – all humans are infertile, and no babies are being born – but the characters ultimately resolve to put their hope in the basic act of living.
The protagonist of Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), starts her journey from a similar point as these characters, having lost her only daughter when the child was four years old, and admitting to feeling lost and wandering in her daily life. Yet what this story offers that Cuarón’s previous works do not is a sense of cosmic scale, for the film literally takes place in space, with the characters surrounded by an inconceivably beautiful, terrifyingly unknowable, and utterly inhospitable environment.
And what a vision of that environment this is. The majority of Gravity is purely experiential, as we open with Dr. Stone in the middle of her first space shuttle mission, and follow her journey through a (brief) period of peaceful operation before a large-scale cosmic disaster, in which debris from a destroyed satellite impacts the team’s shuttle, leaves her and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) stranded. What follows is perhaps the most terrifying and awe-inspiring depiction of outer space ever committed to film, as Cuarón’s incredibly detail-oriented production design, married with an utterly unique approach to cinematography and editing, relentlessly simulates for the viewer the feeling of being lost amongst the stars.
The construction of the film is as fascinating as it is invigorating. Every inch of Gravity looks as if it were shot on location, with Cuarón and his crew travelling up to space and capturing everything live, and the illusion is so complete that I never once found myself wondering how they pulled off these remarkable special effects. There is absolutely nothing that pulls the viewer out of the movie, no moment that stands out as ‘fake’ or ‘manufactured,’ which is of course a constant, if often unconscious, response we naturally have to most effects-driven spectacles. And it is nowhere near as simple as the CGI work being top-notch – it is, but there are plenty of recent movies driven by great CGI that still look largely unconvincing (Avatar and Life of Pi spring immediately to mind). Gravity is the utterly rare case in which the illusion is not only seamless, but I have no earthly idea how they pulled most of it off.
That is because rather than just push the technology as far as it will go, Cuarón has genuinely innovated in terms of the basic cinematic language he employs. Those who have studied film history know that, while cinema was a rapidly evolving medium for its first twenty or thirty years, the general constructive components of the art form have not drastically changed since the silent era. Cinematography and lighting have certainly evolved greatly since early Hollywood, but the basics of how one shoots a scene, at least in mainstream pictures, has long since been set in stone, and more importantly, the continuity-based editing techniques used to put it all together are fundamentally identical today as they were in 1915, when D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation pioneered and solidified many feature editing practices.
But Gravity is, as I said, legitimately groundbreaking. From an editing standpoint, while the film is still constructed on lines of continuity, it does not employ the general editing rhythms audiences are familiar with, where the pace is determined by the number of cuts. Gravity contains very, very few cuts, instead presenting its action through impossibly long, seamless takes. There are cuts here and there, though they are generally few and far between, but virtually every one of them is invisible, because we are conditioned early on not to expect beats of action or dialogue on the cut, but to feel everything progress fluidly and without interruption. Cuts are only employed if a large leap in geography or camera perspective is required, and very occasionally to advance time forward.
Otherwise, everything is presented in single takes, but even the nature of those takes is extraordinarily unique. Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the greatest cinematographers alive today, constantly keeps his camera moving, usually in broad elliptical patterns that simulate the experience of floating through space. It is easily the best visual evocation of weightlessness I have ever seen, and even as the camera follows these experiential or first-person patterns, Lubezki simultaneously keeps moving through spatial environments, bringing us from one character to the next without ever needing to cut, or moving from an front-facing shot of a character inside their helmet, so we may see what they see, and then back out again to the third-person perspective. These are only a few functions of the camera – in the long takes, it also contextualizes all geography and action on its own, and moves quietly away from physical subjects to survey different cosmic sights, like an aurora borealis exploding into being over earth’s surface, before returning to the shot’s primary focus.
These long takes are, of course, illusions in and of themselves – given the amount of special effects required, and the fact that the film was not actually shot while circling earth, the ‘camera’ is much less a physical, tangible presence than an omniscient lens through which action is created. What was literally shot, with actors and physical props or sets, versus what was animated or composited, and how the various disparate elements were spliced together to create the illusion of seamlessness, is all impossible to know, but the effect is transfixing from start to finish. In theory, cinematography does not have to mean a physical camera aimed at tangible subjects, but Hollywood’s fierce insistence on keeping cinematography traditional even as those tangible subjects are increasingly replaced by visual effects – or entirely animated – has made it difficult, in the past, to praise cinematography on largely artificial works. But Gravity proves cinematography can mean something more, and can exist outside of the physical apparatus to achieve visuals the camera itself never could.
To watch Gravity is to see the basics of film construction conceived anew, and it is, to my mind, the single largest step forward in digital filmmaking to date. I have no use for a digital cinema that plays by the same rules as stock-based filmmaking – it will always be inherently inferior. But a digital cinema that separates itself by innovating beyond what physical cinema could be? That is a future I could easily warm to, and Gravity is a wondrous proof of concept.
But as previously stated, Cuarón is not merely innovating for the sake of innovation. He is a storyteller, first and foremost, and the experience of watching Gravity, and being swept up in this immersive vision of the cosmos, is foundational to understanding the core themes of the piece. Space is, after all, an incredibly humbling concept, an infinity of emptiness stretching out in every possible direction, with an unknowable number of stars and worlds punctuating the endless void. It is so big and beautiful and terrifying as to be inconceivable, and in allowing the viewer to experience the horror and majesty of a doomed space voyage alongside the film’s main character, Gravity is, in essence, about humanity’s relationship with the eternal.
Being directly in touch with infinity sure makes Dr. Stone introspective, as her journey to find safe passage back to earth not only brings up old memories about her daughter, but has her questioning the worth of life itself. Very few of us may journey to the stars in our lifetimes, but Stone’s emotional ordeal is nevertheless a very universal experience. I know I relate to it immensely, because after my Dad died, and I started thinking about the nature of life and death and human existence and our small, infinitesimal place in the universe, I was forced to confront my own reasons for living – because it is not good enough, of course, to merely ‘live.’ Each of us must have a deeper, more personal reason for doing so, and finding that reason is exactly what Gravity is all about.
I shall not spoil the conclusion Dr. Stone and the film itself come to – viewers owe it to themselves to forge their own personal experience with this wonderful film – save to say that Cuarón is, perhaps, cinema’s greatest and stealthiest optimist, for the way in which he spins this seemingly dark tale into an absolutely transcendent celebration of life itself is unbelievably profound. What Gravity ultimately has to say about the nature and value of human life – and how it forces the viewer, throughout the film’s second half, to truly experience that message – wound up emotionally wrecking me, and I think it is one of those cinematic experiences I will carry with me the rest of my life. I left the theatre in tears, barely holding it together, amazed that a single film could so powerfully embody, reinforce, and above all else, clarify my basic personal philosophies. I felt cleansed, purified, practically born anew by the beauty of what I had just seen, and reminded, as forcefully as I have ever been, of cinema’s limitless potential for emotional identification.
And I must give every ounce of praise I can muster to Sandra Bullock for her part in making that identification possible. George Clooney, the only other actor to physically appear on screen, is excellent as well, giving a warm and thoroughly lived-in performance, but his part is ultimately a minor one, and Bullock is our only human touchstone for the majority of the film. Her work is not ‘showy’ or over-the-top in any way, but beautifully subtle and nuanced and human, and especially considering the challenge of the role – the physical demands alone seem inconceivable to me – this performance is utterly miraculous. Whoever played this part would have to walk a fine line between being swallowed up by the film’s overwhelming technical aspects and overshadowing the precise, thoughtful atmosphere on display, and Bullock never once wavers to one side or the other. Like every other element of the film, what she does seems in no way fictitious – she simply is the character, and the character is her, one part of a bigger whole. This is quite possibly the best performance of the year, and certainly one of the most piercingly naturalistic I have ever had the fortune to experience.
Gravity will undoubtedly be many different things to many different people (though I think all viewers can agree this is the best and most significant film about space travel since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001). I do not assume the reader shall respond to the film as powerfully as I did, and I can virtually guarantee that if they do, it may be for entirely different reasons. That is the mark of great storytelling, of course, and Gravity, for all its many accomplishments, is at its core a wondrous narrative, beautifully executed with an eye for innovation that matches its emotional and intellectual content.