Alfonso Cuaron’s desire to tell a largely single person survivalist film in space adhering to the laws of real-world physics is inspirational, but his ability to execute the impossibly complex conceptual challenge with perfection and panache makes for a rip-roaring adventure picture for the ages.
Gravity (2013) dir. Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Sandra Bullock. George Clooney
By Alan Bacchus
The space walking sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey seems to be one of the key conceptual inspirations for making this picture – the idea of finding suspense, tension, drama and high jeopardy within the isolating and uncompromising environment of space. Cauron may have also been influenced by Alfred Hitchcock and his insatiable desire to challenging himself with self-imposed narrative restrictions (notably Lifeboat and Rope).
And so it would appear Cauron had started with the concept of playing a two-hander adventure film in space, without stylistic accoutrements vis-a-vie sound effects, rat-a-tat editing, loquacious dialogue and boisterous musical scores before arriving at his hybrid of technical experimentation and traditional adventure storytelling.
The film starts off as a pairing of Clooney and Bullock two, but we quickly come to realize this is Bullock’s picture, a space engineer who while repairing a satellite gets caught up in a space catastrophe which pits her, in her spacesuit aimlessly floating away in space, against her environment with her life at stake. Cuaron’s narrative composed of a number of remarkably conceived and yet simple set pieces drive the story.
Whether it’s trying to unscrew a bolt in space, or using booster jets to control one’s movement, there are obstacles to getting home at every turn and one scene of high stakes jeopardy after another which compound for a near relentless 90mins of remarkably sustained tension.
The technical achievement of this endeavour, already lauded and documented through the press, is mind boggling. Of course we know all this was created on a blue-screen in a soundstage with computer graphics the best money could buy, but even knowing that, the achievement is difficult to fathom. The opening shot for instance, is one unbroken take which seems to last for 15mins or more. Cuaron’s camera which floats around the satellite and the actors is motivated less to show off than to mimic the feeling of floating aimlessly in zero gravity. The effect is dizzying physically to viewer.
Though many scenes feature traditional editing, Cuaron is consistent to this modus operandi of long extended takes throughout the film. Remarkably, even within these shots he’s able to invisibly change the point of view of the audience, thus creating a subliminal feeling of traditional editing.
Bullock’s character Ryan Stone (a male name which is explained) is a given a traditional character trajectory. Pains and angst from the past which contribute to her resolve in the present arguably are narrative elements significantly less creative than the technical set pieces, but as performed by a capable and always likable Sandra Bullock we feel every moment of her adventure.
Cuaron gives into tradition by the end with some elevated and emotionally music, but the ambient tone is less intrusive than traditional orchestral sounds. Cuaron thus satisfies the audience’s need for a rousing ending leaving the audience with a feeling of elation as the film cuts to black.