I had much anticipation for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013). Not for the story or actors, but to see what Cuarón could do cinematographically and aurally with outer space. His Children of Men (2006) was one of the most pleasing films to look at that year, so I expected the same from Gravity.
The film begins with some facts about space, its temperature and whatnot, but most importantly, its silence. With this statement, prior to the any introduction of character and prior to the title sequence, I thought Cuarón would deliver on this promise of silence. He unfortunately does not. Though beautifully composed, the score plays almost throughout the feature and is, as one would expect, cranked during the moments of carnage and destruction. There were a few stingers thrown in too, most painfully when Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) come across a frozen corpse in their decimated space shuttle. What was an otherwise terrifying excursion to the shuttle, despite the shuttle’s darkness due to the insufficiency of 3D to deliver us a well-lit image, was instead a poorly placed, and quite loud, set of violins.
I am getting my disappointment out of the way.
While at times the barely audible soundtrack underscored some of the less intense sequences, altogether it took away from the point of the film, namely, the silence of space. Moreover, I enjoyed the music composed by Steven Price, just not alongside the image. Hearing Clooney’s and Bullock’s dialogue and panic, and the noises generated by their spacesuits clashing against objects, would have been sufficient for the film experience – I would have been just as panicked and terrified, and I would argue, even more so, without the accompaniment of non-diegetic music. Although unlikely, I would love to see a cut of the film without the score.
What made the film so entertaining was the cinematography and CGI. Like in Children the long take was employed to provide viewers a real sense of immediacy and intensity. With the long take we see the expanse of space, and by see, I mean really feel it. As Stone is catapulted off the shuttle, spinning helplessly between blackness and the blue glow of Earth, the camera stays with her and tracks – how could a camera track in space? – to a close-up of Bullock in her helmet. But again, like in Children, the camera does not stop there; seemingly without a cut we move from the outside to the inside of the space suit and follow, from a point-of-view shot, the nauseating spin of Stone in the vastness of space. Kowalski comes to rescue her with his jetpack. He appears as a mere speck in the now sunless side of Earth, lit by human technology; his presence grows and grows until he collides with Stone and the two jet off to their shuttle.
In this first act we see the two astronauts (or three – one more astronaut is present only to be quickly killed) repairing Hubble and the unexpected and eventually catastrophic close, yet distant, satellite explosion. This explosion then causes a chain reaction of other satellite explosions which then circle the Earth at frightening speeds destroying everything in its path. These first few minutes are unlike anything I have seen before. Cuarón makes full use of 3D. The images here are crisp and the action is clearly foreground, taking place out from the blackness of space. A second act traces Kowalski and Stone’s journey from their inoperable shuttle to a nearby (not really) space station. Their efforts, upon reaching the station, are of course thwarted by gravity and Kowalski is left floating off into the abyss. Stone reaches the station with difficulty, and in these moments, her climb atop various parts of the station, the camera shoots her POV: each handhold to another bar, each slip of the hand, each panicked groan resonates with us. The camera swings back and forth between POV and medium close-ups, and a similar strategy is used when Stone is flying through the station. The camera’s POV has objects bouncing off its lens so we really feel the pressure of gravity. At times it looks a bit like a video game, perhaps a better version of Bioshock, i.e., if the game were attempting to convey some element of realism of course. In different terms then, Cuarón’s POV is a tad cartoonish, but for the film’s efforts, there has been nothing like it.
Two more shots are worth mentioning. When Stone reaches the escape pod, the pod is tethered to the station by a mis-deployed parachute. When the debris from the satellite explosion return to decimate the space station, the pod swings about in gravity, much like Stone and Kowalski earlier in the feature. The authenticity of this is almost unreal. Cuarón here has set a new standard for CGI and 3D. To untangle the pod Stone must put on her suit and venture into space once again. We see her at work and while at work, behind her back, the high-speed debris takes apart the station. This was so expertly framed because, due to the lack of sound, Stone does not know what is happening behind her. To get the full effect: This is a film for the big screen.
From here the film takes a turn for the worse. What I want to suggest next is motivated by a recent turn in CGI/3D filmmaking that will, I hope, follow through to its conclusion. In films like Gravity and Dredd (2012), and to a lesser extent Pacific Rim (2013), we have films with a foundation not in a complex story that requires many different plot points, but its ground is in an event. In Gravity: astronauts in space subject to the awesome power of gravity. Unfortunately, in the third act of the film, Cuarón tries to develop Stone as a character. She has lost her 4 year old child to an accident and is still traumatized by the incident. Bullock delivers trite monologues about this, about life, and about death. Personality is on display. We don’t need this character development however. What we need are types, in Stanley Cavell’s sense; with Stone, the on-the-ground scientist turned astronaut. Through her social role individuality is expressed says Cavell. Yet, what social role did we see with Stone? The Mother, which is to say individuality expressed as motherhood and the loss of that role. I would have preferred the less complex (less anti-feminist?) scientist-turned-astronaut type. This would have been enough to enjoy the visuals, because, through the images and sounds alone Gravity entertains.
Instead we have a miscast Bullock, who is of course a draw for audiences because of her recent success in Blind Side (2009), The Heat (2013), and other uninteresting features. What we also have with Cuarón’s efforts at storytelling is an attempt at universality. In space and in her looming death, Stone mentions the necessity of (Christian?) prayers then later finds a Buddha in the Chinese space station’s escape pod. Only a god can save us now, Cuarón seems to say. So there is an underlying religiosity to… to what? To give the event (which by itself kept me on the edge of my seat) a supposedly universal significance and appeal, which is completely unnecessary and ineffective. The other spiritually saturated shot is of Bullock floating in a fetal position, a kind of silly rebirth we are commanded to intuit. When we retain a strong sense of story and character what is lost is the power of the event. If Cuarón wrote types instead of characters, the universal quality of the feature would be simply the terrifying force of gravity, not the back-story which is underdeveloped, and for the purposes of a feature whose value is mostly on its special effects, utterly out of place.
An event based cinema is in order. For features like Gravity, Dredd, and Pacific Rim, I want a cue taken from the Lumière Brothers and Méliès: show us the power of the apparatus, show us the event, and its significance will manifest itself on the screen. I am not proposing a disintegration of storytelling (plot) in film, but we have been moving closer and closer to dropping an identifiable and human based plot in favor of the event outside of human control, taking place in almost real (the viewer’s) time. Cinema has this power. Cavell writes in The World Viewed, “…photographs are of the world, in which human beings are not ontologically favored over the rest of nature, in which objects are not props but natural allies (or enemies) of the human character.” I want the emphasis to be on the event (in these big-budget, CGI genre features), decentred from human action(-image, in Deleuze’s sense), but of course focused on the human – what would that kind of narrative look like anyway? We are close to this kind of film. In what I have seen with Gravity, it is possible to craft (computer-generated) visuals that need very little human presence as character to make our hearts beat a quicker. Had I not had to suffer through Bullock’s monologues, the religiousness, and the weak development of her character, this would have been a visual masterpiece. As it stands, if I can remove the elements which took away from the focus, Cuarón has set the bar, and with his very minimal efforts to craft a plot, which I applaud, has begun to usher in a new kind of cinematic experience. Or, if you like, a return to a cinema of attractions.