One of the earliest and most important question a film lover will ask is, “How did they do that?” It’s something I haven’t asked myself in a while. The answer these days is usually “computers.” But Gravity made me ask that question again. This is the first space film since 2001 that actually looks like it could have been shot in space.
I wasn’t really aware of Gravity’s goals and didn’t really know much about its plot. Turns out it’s actually a fairly standard thriller that may as well be titled Damn You, Issac Newton! But it is one of the most intricately shot and wondrously paced thrillers I’ve ever seen. And the setting is absolutely original for this kind of film.
The film is basically an escape film. Due to a problem with a Russian missile test, a lot of communication satellites explode. An American team is in space repairing the Hubble telescope. Their ship is destroyed by a vessel and most of the crew is killed. Two survivors, including Sandra Bullock (she’s called Ryan Stone) have to use limited resources to jump from space station to space station to find an escape pod to get back to earth’s surface.
And that’s about it. Perhaps I’ve become so used to space operas that I automatically think that any film set above the atmosphere will involve scenes of people contemplating their place in the universe. Maybe they will encounter something that helps us understand our place in the universe. That never happens in Gravity, which means a part of me wants to walk away disappointed. Many people have tried to explain the difference between a movie and a film. A movie is entertainment while a film has loftier ambitions. So Gravity isn’t quite a film; it doesn’t try to explore the lofty questions of man’s place in the universe.
But then a lot of films have tried to ask that and end up being utter failures (like Mission to Mars). Gravity is a rousing success at what it sets out to be. The cinematography is beautiful and makes Gravity seem like a documentary. In fact, the entire film is composed of long shots, that occasionally switch to the POV of Ryan as she struggles to grab hold of anything she can to save her life. Most thrillers are cut like music videos, so it’s practically impossible to understand what’s going on. Not Gravity. The first scene is around a ten minute unbroken shot of all the characters in the midst of a space walk. After that, there are very few cuts – even the POV changes are seamless. Cuaron makes Gravity’s editing and camera work are just as much of a character as Ryan herself and it feels as afraid and contained as Ryan does. Even the HAL sequences in 2001 were not as thrilling as Gravity, and it has so much to do with how the film is shot.
Alfonso Cuaron is a director who is a master of turning artificially constructed moments into natural human moments. His Harry Potter was the best of the franchise, mostly because he allowed the kids to be kids on camera. Children of Men was celebrated for its scenes in which people were allowed to act like people before being thrust into situations far beyond their control. Gravity was only going to work if we liked Ryan Stone. So Cuaron ensured that we were given moments to understand what was at stake. One scene in particular would have come across as profoundly and badly comical in the wrong hands. Stone, on a ship, realizes it doesn’t have fuel and she is unable to get anyone on the radio – except for a Chinese radio show. They feature dogs and Stone starts barking along with them. It was a moment of desperation, where Stone realized she was not about to get home. It doesn’t advance the plot and would have been skipped by practically any other director. But it was a necessary scene that established Stone as a real human figure in our eyes. I guess there was no need for her to examine her place in the universe. Bullock and Cuaron did well enough in helping us truly understand her plight and feel frightened at every turn.
Gravity is among the year’s best movies, in the same vein as Pacific Rim. It is an incredible technical achievement and a thriller that is actually thrilling. The best movies leave viewers in awe, amazed by what they have seen and stunned by the realization they will never see anything like it. It’s those sorts of experiences that create young film buffs. We should cherish them.