How do I know? Because I’ve been to space — or, at least, gotten as close as I’ll ever get, thanks to Alfonso Cuaron’s immersive Gravity.
The universe is a dark, unforgiving place. Life is hard out there. But sometimes, just when you think there’s no hope left, a hand reaches out to save you, pulling you away from the void of nothingness and back toward where intelligent life thrives. No, I’m not describing a scene from Gravity, I’m actually talking about my faith in the film business — and Cuaron is that hand who can save us.
There are so many reasons why Gravity shouldn’t be a hit. But it is. It’s the movie everyone was talking about this past weekend, in that art-meets-commerce way that just had so many of us chattering about Breaking Bad, so it’s heartening to see another fine specimen of moviemaking become the topic of public discourse so soon. Is our taste as a species getting better? Or is this just a fluke? Either way, I’ll take it.
It was a pretty dismal summer, blockbuster-wise, and the studios know it. There were a handful of hits, including a few that did not deserve to be, but moreso there were failures on both a critical and commercial level. You got the sense that Hollywood is just making the wrong movies — The Lone Ranger? Really? Did that ever seem like something people would actively want to see? But I’m not here to pick on easy targets — it’s just nice when the good guys win, because it happens too infrequently.
Alfonso Cuaron is one of the good guys. Since the turn of the millennium, at least, he’s made nothing but great movies, including a raunchy bisexual tryst called Y Tu Mama Tambien, the best of the Harry Potters, the flawless, criminally underseen masterpiece Children Of Men, and now Gravity. Obviously Harry Potter And the Prisoner Of Azkaban did quite well at the box office, but Children Of Men didn’t even make its budget back internationally, and Y Tu Mama Tambien was a hit only by the modest means a foreign indie can be. So the man is due a bona fide smash, and Gravity looks to be it.
The movie stars Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and virtually no one else, save for Ed Harris as ground control (AKA “Houston”, still reeling from all those Apollo 13 jokes all these years later). Houston informs Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski that they’re about to, err, have a problem minutes before debris from a demolished Russian satellite hits them head on. Ryan Stone goes spinning into space, and…
Well, what happens next is all a part of the ride that is Gravity. It’s best to go in knowing as little as possible. With gripping, mesmerizing 3D and breathless pacing, Gravity is as much of a ride as any movie in recent memory, the most immersive film experience I’ve had since Inception. (Before that, it was Children Of Men.)
Gravity is less high art, more entertainment, but the skill Cuaron brings to that makes pure popcorn entertainment seem like an art. If every blockbuster was made this way, movie audiences would be a whole lot happier. You can’t help but marvel at the visuals and craft on display; it’s hard to imagine how it was filmed, but I’d rather not know. It’s like magic.
I imagine almost every filmmaker who made a mainstream action film or thriller recently has attempted to dazzle audiences just this way, but few have succeeded. Spielberg used to do it. James Cameron did it with Avatar, but that was more because of the technology than the storytelling, since that film hasn’t aged well otherwise. Christopher Nolan gets close sometimes.
Alfonso Cuaron has done it twice in a row now, even if Children Of Men is hardly the zeitgeist-level entry that Gravity is already. Gravity isn’t as dramatically satisfying or thought-provoking as Children Of Men — nor is it trying to be. There’s much less story, and the scope is limited to the survival of a couple of people rather than humanity as a whole. (Which is not to say that the film doesn’t have strong themes — rebirth, moving on. Ryan Stone is a more interesting character here than she would be in a bigger, dumber blockbuster.) The screenplay is merely competent, since a few lines of dialogue fall into the “too obvious” category — particularly nearing the climax. Themes are hammered home a bit too bluntly, but better that than not at all. And a number of dramatic moments are aces — Sandra Bullock howling like a dog, for one. These actors had a daunting job to do, and they did it exceedingly well. Don’t be surprised to see Sandy up for Best Actress again.
I don’t want to overpraise Gravity — is it my favorite movie so far this year? Quite possibly. But it engages on a kinetic level rather than an emotional one. You’ll feel dread, terror, panic, and occasionally relief — it’s not so much a moving experience as a visceral one. But Cuaron’s filmmaking is so damn exciting, it’s nearly impossible not to be impressed. Can a straight-up thriller, so painstakingly made, be compared to more artistic endeavors? How does Gravity compare to, say, Zero Dark Thirty? It does and it doesn’t. Ultimately, a movie should engross us, and few of them do so completely. Whether it’s a hard-hitting drama or Cuaron’s wizard-like popcorn moviemaking, perhaps it doesn’t matter.
I imagine this debate will continue well into Oscar season. Movies like Avatar and The Dark Knight and Inception have stirred up similar discussions, these few titles that straddle the line between art and commerce. Gravity made over $55 million this weekend — not exactly Avatar money, but a strong start. And word of mouth is very, very good. It could find its way into several major Oscar categories, including Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Picture, along with a few more technical ones. Could it win Best Picture? If Argo can, I don’t see why not — though it will likely be challenged by more traditional Oscar fare like Twelve Years A Slave and The Wolf Of Wall Street. Gravity doesn’t exactly need a slew Oscars, since it’s already made its mark in other ways. The fact that Cuaron will get his due, and be permitted to take further creative risks, is enough.
At this point, I’m not sure there’s a single working filmmaker more exciting than Alfonso Cuaron. A certain notorious sequence in Children Of Men is still maybe the most jaw-dropping bit of filmmaking of the past couple decades, in my opinion, but Gravity is that scene stretched out to 90 minutes. It’s like he’s inventing a whole new way of making movies, and hopefully it emboldens the studios to take more chances on the truly daring, innovative, and capable auteurs out there. (I’m not sure who besides Steve McQueen, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Darren Aronofsky should be mentioned in this camp — and none of these guys dazzles quite like Cuaron does, from a technical standpoint.)
Already, Gravity is more than a hit — it’s an Event. You can sense the excitement surrounding it. Watching it is like witnessing the birth of something new and amazing. It’s one-of-a-kind. Its closest cousins, I’d say, are Titanic and Alien. Like Alien, this is a story of a woman up against what space throws at her — quite literally, in this case. It feels progressively feminist, in a subtle way, even though the heroine strips down to inappropriately skimpy space attire in both movies. And like Titanic, Gravity is a story of two humans facing a random catastrophe that threatens to swallow them. Titanic had an attention to detail, too — the threats were mainly organic to the sinking of that ship than they were plot-driven (Billy Zane going gun-crazy notwithstanding). There’s a similar dread and mournfulness to both films that most major studio movies wouldn’t bother with, not to mention a certain “I’ll never let go, Jack” familiarity. What Titanic did for the ocean, Gravity does for space.
So all hail Alfonso Cuaron, who finally gets the kudos he deserves from audiences and critics alike. May he have a long and storied career, and may he keep making movies like this. Gravity defies expectations, defies history, defies everything that’s been done before; it throws the rulebook in the trash and starts all over. There’s no formula. It’s just a good, solid story made excellent through Cuaron’s spellbinding direction. (Also, Steven Price’s haunting score and Emmanuel Luzbeki’s peerless cinematography deserve special shout-outs.)
After so long adrift in a black void with loud, dumb, pieces of junk flying at us — Transformers, this means you — Cuaron has finally extended a lifeline to moviegoers. If you have to be lost in space, Alfonso Cuaron is the man you want to take you there.