Active Ingredients: Rollercoaster thrills; Technical accomplishments
Side Effects: Immateriality; Lack of formal precision; George Clooney
Gravity has proven to be one of the rare films that captures the attention and esteem of critics and audiences alike. Nor should it come as a surprise. The film boasts a talented and ambitious director in Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), a reliable cast, and even delivers both exciting action and thematic weight inside a grand sci-fi spectacle. Gravity is a ride I was happy to go on. Still, I find myself shying away from the hyperbolic response the film has received. It may, as Time Magazine declares, “show us the glory of cinema’s future,” but is Gravity‘s weightlessness really what we want for the future of cinema?
Some incredible technical innovation went into realizing Cuarón’s detailed and highly immersive vision of outer space. He and his crew were able to simulate and shoot the bulk of the film in zero gravity, with an astonishingly nimble camera. Just as two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) are set adrift in the vast emptiness of space, fighting for survival after their shuttle is destroyed, so too is the camera.
This unmoored and unrestricted camera is most noticeable in the film’s first shot, comprising nearly the entire first act of the story and lasting seventeen minutes. Cuarón and his fantastic cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life) swoop around their subjects, framing close-ups and long shots, considering the majesty of Planet Earth below the action, and even passing through the astronauts’ visors to see out of their eyes. It’s breathtaking and seamless, but what does it add to the story?
As I’ve suggested, the buoyancy of the camera may reflect the experience of floating in zero gravity, but is it appropriate for the film’s visual movements to be as seemingly random as that of the cosmic debris hurtling through space to threaten our astronauts? Would a more calculated and deliberate series of motions provide a firmer visual grounding, and allow us to understand the grief of Bullock’s character even more clearly? Perhaps Cuarón has indeed made all the correct choices; I simply want to ask whether Gravity’s technical accomplishes—”the glory of cinema’s future”—are essential, or merely interesting. In other words, if technology frees us to move the camera wherever we wish, should we?
While I take issue with an unquestioned use of new technology representing cinema’s future—in most of Gravity, I’m unsure whether sets, actors, cameras or anything is conventionally “real”—there is no doubt that Cuarón has used it to craft a supremely effective and engrossing spectacle. He manipulates tension masterfully, and judiciously uses 3D to enhance the anxiety of reaching out to grab a handhold before slipping out into space. Cuarón and his son/cowriter Jonás have also woven a delicate, if not exactly profound, tale of emotional survival into the more immediate physical one.
Gravity demands to be seen, and demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, I just hope this glorious new “future” cinema leaves room for more modest artistic advances as well as technical ones.