A new frontier
Alfonso Cuarón crafts an emotional and visually stunning space thriller
The new film by Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, The Children of Men) is a dazzling piece of artful entertainment. It’s a sci-fi adventure, with a pair of stranded astronauts played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock trying to survive a space-station calamity, and it packs a great deal of unexpected interest into what might sound like a relatively simple story. Scarcity of oxygen, suspension of the law of gravity, extreme physical isolation—they all heighten the stakes in the characters’ efforts to improvise self-rescue via the increasingly disabled remnants of their elaborate space-travel technology.
Part of the film’s special appeal resides in the aura of enchantment that seems to prevail in the midst of these tension-filled situations. The characters’ experience of weightlessness is given added lyrical form by brilliant cinematography that drifts calmly through whole scenes in which the usual limits of framing, point-of-view, and spatial orientation rarely seem to apply.
Cuarón and company make wonderfully expressive use of the 3-D format on behalf of all of its main concerns. Both visually and dramatically, Gravity is about human beings struggling to get their bearings, in several senses of that word. Spatial and psychological disorientation recurs, but the screenplay by Alfonso and his brother Jonás Cuarón also nudges us toward perspectives on the dimensions of human identity, of purpose and self and locale.
The film’s title refers, plainly enough, to that circumstance of weightlessness, but it also comes to evoke other kinds of gravity—grave danger, grave doubts and misgivings, emotional and spiritual gravity. The latter ingredients emerge gradually, and rather gently, through the somewhat minimalist character development of the two protagonists. This happens both in the relationship between them that grows in significance as their separateness becomes more extreme and with the quasi-mythic trajectory of Bullock’s character from something like technologically encumbered loner to epic heroine finding her way to a multi-faceted rebirth.
Bullock and Clooney fill their roles nicely. Neither is called upon to do any fine-tuned acting here—the physical and vocal presence of their movie-star personae is more than enough in this case. But there’s one more sign of the film’s deftly designed illusionism in the way that both stars have moments which give their most doting fans something they might have wished for, but doing so in a way that remains true to the overall concept.
I figure to revisit this film more than once, and soon. One time, I’ll go back to pay more exclusive attention to the cinematography (including especially camera movements and the impression of long takes seemingly unmoored from the usual technical constraints). Another time, in the interests of close comparison, I’ll check out the 2-D version. Both times I’ll be checking back on an assortment of fleeting details—the semi-comic ballet of symbolic umbilical cords, the hints of dream reality, the circle of mud on Bullock’s apparel at the end. And did I hear Bullock’s character calling out to her own mother in a moment of extreme peril?