The very extended opening shot of the film sets up the entire story. High in the limitless depths of space, astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on a space walk mission to fix a portion of a shuttle. Stone’s commander, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is right there with her, cracking jokes about days past. Soon into their mission, satellite debris destroys their ship and kills the rest of the crew, leaving Stone (who is on her first ever space mission) and Kowalski (who is on his last), to fight for themselves.
As he proved in his last film, Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón is a master of digital technology. Coupled with the expert precision of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity is simply a sight to behold. The computer effects present throughout are flawless. They look authentic and establish a persistently gorgeous and, at times, appropriately dreadful mood. For contrast, last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man was made for $230 million, and its digital effects are comparable to that of a video game. Gravity looks like real life, in all its horror and glory.
(Note: I have seen the film twice, both in IMAX 3D. I’m generally not a fan of the 3D format, but if there was ever a film worthy of a few extra dollars, Gravity is surely it.)
MTV changed film editing. Music videos introduced rapid cutting, thereby forcing viewers to pay attention faster, as opposed to closer. The average American film as long as Gravity contains 600-700 editing cuts. Action films usually have upwards of 3,000 cuts. Gravity has 156. Total.
Often in action and/or suspense films today, it’s damn near impossible to get a full grasp of the action at hand. Shots during action sequences are usually held for less than a second. We’re cutting to different perspectives, different angles, measuring different depths of field, and so on, causing an unsatisfactory sense of disorientation. Me personally, I like to know what’s going on in a film, not have to dart my eyes around the screen, hoping to catch whatever image I can in half a second, before cutting away to a different shot. Gravity eliminates that bewilderment, which is odd, given that Dr. Stone rarely has a clue where she is or what she’s doing.
Here’s an example: when Dr. Stone first disconnects from a large piece of her ship, launching herself into space alone, we see her spinning upside down over and over and over. When the camera reaches her, she’s still spinning. And we know that because this is space, she’ll spin until something stops her. For a few moments, Cuarón holds Dr. Stone in the frame as she spins up and down, which can have a dizzying effect on us. But as Cuarón pushes his camera in, we start spinning with Dr. Stone, which completely eliminates any sense of confusion. Most any director would cut from the master shot of Dr. Stone spinning, to the audience spinning along with her. Not Cuarón. He knows that by holding a shot in real time, we can fully understand what’s happening, and share in Dr. Stone’s fear.
But game-changing cinematography and patient editing will only take a movie so far. It’s the heart of the thing that matters. And I’ll be the first to admit, as someone who remains utterly baffled by her Oscar win for The Blind Side, I was nervous about Bullock’s ability to carry the film. But as Dr. Stone, Bullock delivers what will be remembered as some the best, most courageous acting of her career. Bullock has been quick to note that this was not an easy film to shoot, but her frustrations on set have clearly paid off. I loved everything about her tortured performance.
Alfonso Cuarón is one of the leading innovators of the cinematic game. He hasn’t made many films, but all of them are different and important. Whether he’s adapting Dickens, tracking Harry Potter, or following two young men on a sexual odyssey, there’s something about human nature that Cuarón is so obviously drawn to. And, because of his interest, he’s able to translate the best and worst of who we are onto the screen exquisitely. Gravity is the technological achievement of a lifetime. But it’s also a damn smart film that never forces its intentions on us. Rather, it kindly asks us to enjoy the ride, but pay attention while doing so. Gladly. A