Saturday, October 19, 2013

Mastery of the Art: Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón has made only seven full-length movies in twenty-two years, and his latest, Gravity, is the first he’s released since Children of Men in 2006. Gravity justifies the long wait. It’s exquisite and terrifying, a journey through space at 0G, or zero gravity, that Cuarón, the production designer Andy Nicholson, the editor Mark Sanger (co-editing with Cuarón himself) and his favorite collaborator, the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, have made simultaneously abstract and grippingly real. (This is one of those rare films that demands to be seen in 3D.) Visually it’s as breathtaking as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but without that movie’s self-consciousness or ersatz philosophizing. The film I thought of more often while I was watching was Brian De Palma’s unjustly maligned Mission to Mars from 2000.

The narrative, devised by Cuarón and his son Jonas, is simple but potent. Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on an exploratory trip into space under the command of Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). When flying debris destroys their ship, pummels the other members of the crew and sends Stone hurtling into the atmosphere, it’s up to Kowalski to gather her up, keep her calm – so that she won’t ingest the vital oxygen in her helmet in panicked gulps but, as he coaxes her to, sip it like champagne – and eventually, when it is no longer viable for both of them to subsist tethered to each other, help guide her to safety on her own. (This scene recalls the mournful one in Mission to Mars where Tim Robbins sacrifices himself for his wife and fellow astronaut, played by Connie Nielsen.) The hero of Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People learns that the strong must learn to be lonely; Ryan Stone, whose life has been empty since the loss of her child, makes the reverse discovery – she finds the strength inside her loneliness when she’s truly deserted in space by linking to the feelings she’s been trying to bury since that loss. She stays alive by rediscovering her humanity. Thus the title of the movie has several meanings. It not only refers to the element in the absence of which Stone and Kowalski dangle and float through space and to the direness of their predicament; it also means gravitas, the emotional weight of Stone’s experience of motherhood and grief, which, at the crucial moment when she knows she might never return to earth, gives meaning to her life. What she has been through on earth fills the void around her.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

The way in which the Cuaróns and Bullock dramatize that idea sidesteps what in other hands might be mere sentimentality. Bullock has been a movie star for nearly two decades but she didn’t do anything on screen worth paying attention to until she played the homicide detective in Murder by Numbers in 2002. In 2009’s The Blind Side she finally turned into what Clooney had been all along, an old-style Hollywood star who was also a fine actor. The role of Ryan Stone requires Bullock to carry the movie – charming and companionable as he is, Clooney has relatively little time on camera – as well as to strip down to a kind of purity of feeling. The narrative (and visual) context make it impossible for her to rely on her star presence, as she did in The Blind Side; she has to carve her character almost entirely out of her emotional responses. She does get to speak; though she no longer hear the comforting voice of their Houston controller (provided in this case by Ed Harris, who, it will be remembered, played astronaut John Glenn in The Right Stuff), she continues to monologue to him on the off-chance that he can hear her and might be able to rescue her. Still, what Bullock does here is much like what the silent screen actors did. The speech the Cuaróns wrote for Ryan when she recalls her dead child is banal, but Bullock makes the banality work for her as the silent stars (and especially the actresses) made melodrama work for them. It’s an admirable and affecting performance.

Director Alfonso Cuarón
Cuarón’s imagery takes Gravity into the realms of both horror (a shot of one of the crew members with a hole in the middle of his face, the body of another colliding with Stone as she enters the spacecraft) and fairy tale. Before Kowalski manages to locate Stone in space and tether her to him, we see her catapulting into the distance, her form lit only by the lights in her helmet and her suit, and when he catches her the spiraling, continually unspooling cable that attaches them suggests an expressionistic ballet. This visual echoes the early shot of one of the crew (Paul Sharma) floating through space, yelping with delight, though the mood is entirely different. When Ryan gets to shelter, she removes her gear and floats freely through the capsule, giving herself over to a sense of release for a few moments, and she appears to be sleeping on the air. At one point we see tiny smoky reflections of light, as if some mysterious off-screen light source were breathing on the screen. The 3D layering emphasizes the dimensionality of these images, just as it did in Life of Pi: it seems clear by now that the great power of 3D lies in its ability to embody the nature of solitariness. Cuarón whips up one stunning visual after another: a tiny flame quivering in the air; debris fragmenting behind Stone; her face framed by the glass of her helmet as the camera pulls away from her; a tear floating off her cheek. When she launches herself in a Chinese capsule, hoping it will be her ride home, the fiery pieces from the blast-off look like fairies escorting her through space. (Two non-visual artists deserve praise as well: Niv Adiri and Ben Barker, the sound editors. Sound is the other emotionally evocative element in the picture, especially in the sequence where Ryan establishes fleeting contact with Chinese ground control, cold comfort because though it links her to earth, she and the voices on the other end of the connection can’t understand each other’s languages.)

Cuarón is a master filmmaker who prefers not to circle back to the kind of material he’s already done. Beyond the hypnotic draw of the storytelling and the magical quality of the images there’s little to suggest that the same man made A Little Princess, Great Expectations, Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men and Gravity. (A Little Princess and Prisoner of Azkaban, maybe; both are fairy tales.) And I can’t think of half a dozen directors working today who are working at his level.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. Gravity is what cinema at its best should be - an experience that makes you grip the armrests tightly and slide to the edge of your seat as you become completely consumed by the story on the screen.