The first film in seven years by the superb Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity is the rare work that one actually justifies waiting for. Even now, a couple of weeks have passed since I saw it at the Toronto Film festival, and there is a sharp and lyrical clarity of memory and feeling.
The story of two astronauts (superbly played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) unmoored in deep space, the movie has the kind of majestic and soulful purity only a transcendent and original artist is capable. It is a work that feels free form and immersive, though not overly fussed with. Even the grandeur is lucid and intuitive.
The movie, which does not have a wasted moment in its fleet and sharp ninety-three minute running time, is the only aesthetic justification of 3-D I know of late. Yet, it is impossible to talk about this kind of cinema without approaching the technological imperatives that make it possible. The extreme digital manipulation of the image is, of course, the dominant technological story of the last four decades of cinema. The great paradox is as the technology has become more seamless and expressive, the directors have become enthralled a little too much, losing a great deal of personality in the process.
Gravity is a bravura technical work, made explicit in the stunning opening fourteen minute shot as Cuarón's gliding and highly mobile camerawork draws on the vast and infinite space that evokes a daunting and magnificent physical world. Cuarón's great skill here is to personalize the material (he wrote the script with his son, Jonás Cuarón). He intuitively contrasts the immaculate and stunning imagery against the particulars of the human condition, in this case, the mission involving the jocular, veteran pilot (Clooney) and the gifted scientist and doctor (Bullock) tasked with her first mission.
Gravity is predicated on questions and contradictions. The astonishing and glorious beauty of the opening is not without consequence, an inky foreboding of unease and rupture. The poetry and beauty of the opening is soon disrupted by a frightening blowback, a firestorm of debris from a downed Russian satellite, that leaves the two astronauts the only survivors of their mission. With their own station damaged beyond repair, the two must improvise to secure their own safety.
Cuarón superbly plays off the extremes of subjectivity, the bodies in flight glanced against the majestic orb of the Earth, or in the most terrifying and exciting part of the film, Bullock somersaults violently out of control as her body is dragged toward the damaged space station and she desperately tries to gain her equilibrium and grab hold of something concrete, or firm.
Cuarón is savvy and smart enough to meditate on the classics of the form (2001, Solaris), but the marvel, complexity and impudent wit that are his signature are subtly woven into the movie's rhythms. It's a sly and subversive comedy of marriage as the extreme pressure and intensity of incident draws out a marvelous and lyrical exchange between the two principals. Clooney's natural wit masks his extreme competence and Bullock, the serious one haunted by a personal tragedy, discovering untapped powers of thinking and problem resolution.
Working with a great director, Bullock submits herself to his will and strips the character to an essence; for once, she projects a vulnerability and fearlessness not tapped into a larger need for approval or emotional identification. She is a spellbinding presence, taut, avid and staggeringly lonely. It is natural to assume a greater philosophical inquiry yoked to the exigencies of the survival story. Fortunately Cuarón is after something more primal and ecstatic.
Cuarón is great, but he is gifted enough to privilege the contributions of his collaborators: cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, sound designer Glenn Freemantle, production designer Andy Nicholson and composer Steven Price. Cuarón edited the film with Mark Sanger.
To say anything more risks overstatement. Just see it, again and again.Image courtesy of Warner Brothers and Toronto International Film festival.