Alfonso Cuaron drives me nuts. There I’ve said it. His films are so immersive, so real, they frequently leave you gasping for air. That’s very much the case in Gravity when our protagonist, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), is dangerously low on oxygen. In fact, there isn’t a time when she’s not in serious peril. You can see why this film wouldn’t work beyond 90 minutes, it’s exhausting.
Never have I scrunched up my toes for the duration of a film before, dammit Cuaron! What, in essence, I’m trying to say, is that Gravity is a pure sensory experience and the first – and hopefully last – time we’ll see 3D used in the way in which it was probably intended (i.e. in space with things floating around and frequently exploding). I’ve heard this film be described as something of a novelty in that sense, and I suppose it is: other directors take note, don’t make Gravity 2, please.
To backtrack a moment, plot wise it’s thin on the ground and, from what I’ve read, it’s intentionally this way. We don’t need a vast amount of backstory to sympathise with these characters. We start out with veteran space man Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) helping Bullock’s rookie astronaut, Dr. Stone, fix something. They’re quickly informed some pesky Russians have blown up one of their space stations starting a chain reaction of debris orbiting the planet. Clever plot point, as we get almost regularly timed sequences of mayhem as Stone and Kowalsky spend the rest of the film trying to make it back to earth in one piece.
To keep the experience as immersive as possible Cauron, to his credit, doesn’t cut away to earth to see what Houston are up to, he doesn’t provide flashbacks to tell us why the characters are doing what they are doing, it’s obvious what they’re doing, trying to survive.
There’s also the fact that, if you avoid these little screenwriting tropes, the tension stays high. Cuaron wants us on edge, he wants us there in space with them. The 3D really helps in that sense, with blobs of liquid and other space paraphernalia occasionally hitting the camera; a nice touch by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski, a man known for staggering natural beauty in his shots.
He’s worked with Cuaron before, as well as Terence Malick, making him – along with Roger Deakins – Hollywood’s go-to guy for gorgeous scenery and sumptuous wide shots. A perfect fit for Cuaron’s vision of the vast and eerily beautiful vacuum that is space.
And if we’re talking tone, this is no Apollo 13 but perhaps closer to Duncan Jones’ Moon or J.C. Chandor’s latest All Is Lost; a film where Robert Redford makes up the entire cast and says barely a word for the duration. It also has elements of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.
That’s not a criticism, just an observation. Clearly this is a technical masterpiece and has pushed the boundaries of what 3D – and indeed cinema – is capable of achieving. Hopefully it’s a one-off, but chances are we’ll see various attempts in the next few years to replicate this sort of thing.
In short, this film is a tense and exhausting technical triumph. Praise for Cuaron is entirely justified, as it is for Bullock too. But let’s just preserve and enjoy their work and keep it as that, shall we?