Review – Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
How budget and CGI allowed Alfonso Cuarón to reinvent the filmgoing experience.
With Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón finds a perfect setting in which to utilize his love of sweeping camera movements and long takes. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), with it’s otherworldly rules, gave Cuarón a chance to stretch his wings a bit. When Harry hops on his broomstick and hurdles into the air, you can tell the director is enjoying the freedom of green screen and budgeting that allow him to lift off the ground. In Children of Men (2006), Cuarón once again favored camera fluidity, emphasizing the vast amounts of rubbled space in a childless future. The technique also creates a feeling of continuous action, providing an alternative to the rapid editing techniques over-used in action films. Here, harnessing a jaw-dropping environment unlike any other, he lets his instincts run wild.
Of course, to say he followed his “instincts” could imply organic, vérité-style camera movement. Instead, this film took years of planning and laboring over minutiae in a computer lab. But even while Cuarón’s role was not as simple as pointing and shooting a camera, the film overwhelming bears the mark of its director. In Gravity, Cuarón emphasizes the vastness of space by departing from the rules that usually govern film language on the ground. This movement away from typical cinema rules parallels the freedom that digital imaging can impart on the filmmaking process, provided one has the resources to make it look as good as it does here.
Having only two protagonists and one setting makes it easier for Cuarón to come up with creative ways to avoid cutting. The camera movement emphasizes the vastness and openness of space with long gliding camera shots that often move with dizzying irregularity and speed. Cuarón doesn’t seem to be burdened by any gravitational bias. There is no up or down. Viewers have to become acclimated to a totally weightless and 3-dimensional environment. Conventional spatial relationships can be discarded. There’s no room for medium shots, or shot-reverse-shot structure in this film. The very set-up of the narrative prevents it. And with the characters communicating by radio, they are free to maintain a physical distance from one another. Cuarón is creative with his use of sound, which further reinforces the feeling of deep space. Once again, he makes the most of the environment by allowing sounds to get swallowed in the expanse.
The film opens with a long shot with barely audible squeak of radio static. Words gradually start to form as the center of the action draws nearer. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) encounter disaster when a field of debris wrecks their ship and sends them careening into the void. The camera pans along with Stone, who is still harnessed to a stray piece of the shuttle, as she spins out of control following the impact. When Stone cuts herself loose, she finds herself in a nightmare situation. Unbound to anything, she is drifting in space and quickly running out of oxygen. Kowalski finds her and pulls her towards a near-by space station, where they plant to use the escape pod to return home. To avoid cross cutting, Cuarón aims his camera at Bullock, and shows a reflection of Kowalski in the curved glass of her helmet. The tactic allows viewers to remain situated with Stone, feeling her anxiety build.
After much travail, Stone finally makes it into the station and out of her spacesuit. She allows herself a moment of respite, drifting into a fetal curl and lingering there. What is this image of rebirth doing in the middle of the film? There’s a simple narrative explanation: Stone has been given a new chance at life, following near-defeat by the gaping jaws of the universe. After losing her daughter, Stone has little reason to fight for her life, but near-death makes existence feel precious once more. What better place to experience this epiphany than outer space, which, despite its inhospitality to the human organism, is the true origin of life? On the other hand, perhaps the rebirth demonstrates a renewal of film, or at least, a new era of filmmaking where 3-D and digital imaging technology are finally being implemented to their fullest potential. The camera no longer records reality, but the director’s wildest dreams.
This movie deserves its blockbuster status. It’s pure spectacle created by the best production values money can buy. However, it also uses those resources to make something incredible that addresses something fundamental about the drive for survival and the elements that truly inspire fear. What could have been a distracting pop corn flick is actually much more.
In a way, the film’s success is somewhat worrisome. While expectations for mainstream film should absolutely be higher, putting more money into movies like Gravity could result in greater polarization between the haves and the have-nots of the industry, creating a gulf between them. When producers feel as though they have to pour millions of dollars into budgeting a film in order for it to be a success, they will only bet on what they believe to be sure-fire winners – not always to the benefit of cultural advancement. On the other hand, if we have only mega-blockbusters lining theater marquees from now on, by all means, make them more like Gravity.
If you are looking for a good piece on the technology behind the film, I’d recommend this one from Cinema Blend.