When considering the merits of the new Alfonso Cuarón film, it’s advisable to remember the full title slapped on the front of the original script he wrote with his son Jonas: Gravity: A Space Adventure in 3-D. It’s that word with the capital A that’s most important, I think. Gravity may very well the first Academy Award Best Picture nominee that can be marked down in ink, and it may have kerfuffled and intrigued science-minded individuals to such a degree that it’s evidently occupied Neil deGrasse Tyson’s entire week. It has swamped the pop culture consciousness more thoroughly than any other movie in recent memory, so much so that it’s almost sure to be puzzled over, debated, criticized and lauded endlessly as other films come and go over the next few months. Its outsized ambitions are clear as can be, especially when viewed through borrowed stereoscopic sunglasses.
And yet it’s also far more humble that many of the grumpiest observers are allowing. Cuarón may have had hopes to provide the audience with something never quite seen before, but I don’t think he was truly hoping for some Kubrickian immersion in the isolation of outer space. From the evidence of what’s onscreen, I think the director wanted to make a riveting entertainment rather than an intricately fact-checked journey into the physics that exists beyond the atmosphere. As a defense against shaky science, “It’s not a documentary” is admittedly the weakest of teas. That doesn’t necessarily mean Cuarón’s obvious favoring of dramatic liberties over the most accurate possible depiction of the environment is a problem. This is an Indiana Jones movie with spacesuits, and I was enraptured the vast majority of the time.
Cuarón has been experimenting with long takes since at least his spectacular 2006 film, Children of Men (the noodling around version of this can be found in the anthology film Paris, je t’aime) and he starts Gravity out with the rightly lauded pinnacle of this technique, a sequence lasting nearly twenty minutes and constructed to look like a single shot. The cameras swoops around as a trio of astronauts, including one civilian brought up on a special mission to work on the Hubble telescope. Cuarón takes full advantage of the ability of the characters–and therefore his camera–to move any which way, establishing the pliable possibility of both the environs and, by extension, his film. It’s 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s circular jog taken to a dazzling extreme, exhaustively redefining perception as an opening gambit. It’s a feat of cinematic construction that’s almost exhausting to think about, but as with the long takes in Children of Men, it’s not simply for show. The technique is meant to convey something, to put the viewer so deeply into the experience that it shifts from something being observed to something being felt. It’s incredible, not because it looks great, but because it has purpose.
In general, Gravity is a film rife with purpose. Cuarón hasn’t been coy in the slightest about the film serving as a metaphor for rebirth, and, if anything, his symbolic imagery is occasionally a touch too spot-on. But then again, there’s something to be said for a film that is committed to visual dazzle and equally serious about wrenching some meaning out of it. If the screenplay isn’t always highly nuanced, it does have a consistent desire to explore the human soul as relentlessly as it bounds through space. In that, Cuarón couldn’t have a much better ally than Sandra Bullock, finally pushing herself as an actress in a way that fully exposes the talents that’s long been little more than a tantalizing hint as she trudged through largely inferior material. From the first moments when her character moves from a precarious situation to genuine worries about her own mortality, Bullock delivers. With Cuarón’s camera often pressing in tight on her face, Bullock signals the emotional journey of a person smart enough to realize the level of danger she faces even as she tugs at herself to find the inner gumption and intellectual creativity to extricate herself from a seemingly impossible dilemma. Beyond that, Bullock’s natural approachable nature and casual charm helps immensely. Without offering too much, there’s a scene that involves Bullock’s character reacting in kind to unique sounds coming over a capsule radio, and I struggle to think of another current performer not only pulling that moment off but making it actually moving.
As I later took in some of the grousing about scientific slip-ups in Gravity, I understood the concerns. For me, I don’t think it was solely my own science class ineffectiveness that made me overlook the issues. Instead, I think it’s more attributable to the adeptness of Cuarón’s storytelling. The director wanted to take me on a ride, one that combined emotional and technical achievement in the rarest of ways. And, plain and simple, I was thrilled to take that ride.