It was worth waiting the seven years for Alfonso Cuarón’s next feature. If Cuarón gained entrée into the highest echelon of directors working today with 2006’s Children of Men (and before that 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and 2001’s Y tu mamá también), he firmly entrenches himself within that coterie (Anderson, Fincher, Tarantino, or whoever you’d include) with Gravity, a taut and thrilling film that manages to be sci-fi blockbuster, quiet melodrama, and space epic simultaneously. The film in its scale will and should draw comparisons to the titan of the genre (if we’re assigning “space” its own standalone genre) to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, arguably matching that classic in supreme technical finesse and visual allure and surely surpassing it in its fondness for the actual humans trapped in the universe’s wide expanse if not necessarily in Big Ideas (though you can find Cuarón’s musings about humans’ place in the grander scheme without much trouble, it’s just that he doesn’t insist so heavily on them).
But Cuarón’s refusal to pontificate about the Dawn of Man or mysterious encounters at the edge of our solar system probably benefits his movie, blending intimacy with urgency, the urgency of two astronauts’ (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) survival after debris from a poorly executed anti-satellite exercise ravages their space shuttle—their ride home is gone, and instead of gliding down they’re left to drift aimlessly, abandoned by human contact in space’s indifference. Augmenting this urgency is the film’s stunning CGI work, surely aided by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a longtime Cuarón collaborator and my pick for Best Never to Have Won an Oscar—the universe is nothing if not random, but Cuarón and Lubezki have choreographed a rigorous yet delicate (and soundless) string of destruction and despair. While Cuarón has untethered his ideas and stories from Earth proper, the planet still exerts a pull on Gravity, a very exciting and aesthetically stunning film that builds on his exploration of humanity.
It’s too early to say how Gravity, like any work that relies so crucially on the ability to stitch visual effects seamlessly into the larger whole, will hold up, but for the time being its visuals are breathtakingly marvelous. Most of you will probably see it in 3D, and, in an extreme rarity for me, I’d actually recommend that you do—there are at least two shots, apart from Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone traversing some abandoned interplanetary infrastructure more generally, that make effective use of the technology: one in which debris hurtled at the audience and succeeded in startling me, another in which a character’s tear floats away, unburdened by the physical forces to which we’re accustomed. (That said, I certainly wouldn’t fault you for not paying the 3D premium, because it’s still going to be an experience regardless, but it’s evident, especially through that latter shot, that 3D was a carefully considered element in Cuaron’s and Lubezki’s plans, and not one cynically adopted in post-production as a cash grab.) Combined with what comes across as hyper-precise (even if Neil deGrasse Tyson has a few issues with the looseness of some facts) and high-definition renderings of an astronaut’s suit or a space station, the 3D isn’t ever a distraction, and blends in with the rest of the spectacle.
Gravity, like its predecessor 2001, underscores that visual effects aren’t just superfluous explosions that Cool Guys don’t have to look at. I mentioned that Kubrick’s film concerns itself more with the big picture and unanswerable questions, while Cuarón, though he’s aware of those questions, doesn’t set out to answer them in Kubrick’s oblique way. Both directors, however, use effects to further the plot, further their ideas, or both: Kubrick’s mission was more contemplative in design, Cuarón’s centered on action and human response, but neither think crashes or shuttle-docking sequences should be loud (often ignored is the fact, stated in Gravity‘s epigraph, that there is no sound in space) or redundant.
Where Cuarón distances himself from Kubrick is his desire to tell a small-scale, human story in this epically vast setting—the stakes in Gravity are high but they are also decidedly human, because we’re watching two humans grapple with their possible deaths. It’s true that everything in nature dies of course, but it is humans who are solely cursed with this knowledge, and where Kubrick’s distrust for and condescension towards pretty much all humans pervade his later movies (starting with 2001), Cuarón, in all of his films, is looking to the few good seeds in a fallen world to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles (in some films it is humans and human behavior that constructs those obstacles, here it is a superhuman, physical source and force). 2001‘s thrills came from wondering what Kubrick meant to convey with his colorful visual palate; Gravity is starkly less colorful, the color supplied by the two human dots against the blackness, the thrills by watching those human dots confront the blackness (and the debris that pummels them every ninety minutes—thanks angular momentum!) If Kubrick devised how to smartly fashion an effects sequence, he wouldn’t have necessarily minded the desensitizing and dehumanizing extremes most action movies go to in utilizing such sequences.
Not Cuarón—here, we’re talking about CGI with human cost. It’s because Gravity‘s cast is so small and, somewhat paradoxically, not at odds with each other, that I invested so much into this effects-driven enterprise. That Bullock’s Stone and Clooney’s Matt Kowalski face the same problem jointly makes the question of their survival all the more thrilling, uncertain, and frightening—and speaks to the importance of casting. Clooney is affably corny as Kowalski, the mission’s seen-it-all commander, regaling his crew with stories they’ve heard over and over again; he’s the type of nerdy but safely likable joke-telling engineer who probably wears Hawaiian shirts whenever he’s off the job. His role was originally offered to Robert Downey, Jr.—you should be able to get the idea there.
It’s Bullock who’s essential. Her character is on her first mission and a civilian, meaning she’s the closest thing the audience has to a vessel for whatever fear and awesomeness (literally) must come with being in space. And given that she’s in a space suit for most of the film, she has to do a lot of work with her eyes and with her voice and breathing, with which she effectively transmits dread, panic, and exhaustion. Like Clooney, it helps that she is likable, but more than that, Dr. Stone must be and object of our sympathy, and it likely helps that Bullock’s characters have a reputation for a certain maternal doggedness or aw-shucks attitude. It’s easy to perceive Stone as an innocent character—Cuarón’s heroes are those of us whose innocence has not yet been tainted—because of what Bullock brings. Her part was originally offered to Angelina Jolie and later Natalie Portman, and luckily Bullock was chosen: Jolie and Portman both have a quality that the other lacks, Bullock is best able to unite toughness with sinlessness. It’s this combination of qualities that Bullock possesses that can occasionally lead to melodrama, and there is some melodrama, particularly in one of Stone’s and Kowalski’s conversations in the film’s second half, present here. (Kowalski’s on his last mission, Stone her first, another cliché.) But the touches of melodrama don’t saturate the rest of the movie—given how tense some of the sequences are, how could they?—and are less like a devolution in storytelling than an natural progression considering, you know, these characters are lost in space.
Asked recently to describe what unites his seemingly unrelated films, Cuarón said, after some hesitation and mulling-over, “Road movies.” If Cuarón hadn’t thought about what links his work together, that’s a pretty interesting, pretty cool, and pretty accurate way to put it. Y tu mamá también is literally a road movie, Children of Men close to one, and Gravity is about a journey—I’d still frame Cuarón’s body of work a little differently from the man himself. His movies depict journeys, but the actual destination and even the road taken there are often different from what’s found, often quite unexpectedly, at the destination arrived at. Y tu mamá también is a great example of this, in the way its epilogue pulls the rug out from beneath you. (If you haven’t, see this movie.) Gravity is a less prominent example of this, but if Cuarón ever does focus on explicit Big Questions, it’s at the very end, particularly with the film’s final shot.
But Cuarón, even if he doesn’t ask you to ponder Man’s place in the universe too much, he still doesn’t shy away from a thematically rich picture, what with his focus on compromised human innocence and the great lengths to which humans go, involuntarily, in spite of great hardship. He is a humanist director who is simultaneously conscious of the fragility of the human psyche and of humans’ inability to control all you find in nature, whether that’s human folly, vice, and corruption, or, as in Gravity, the universe’s indifference. Space is awe-inspiring, but you might not be thinking about the Big Bang when a satellite’s flying at you.