I’m not Alfonso Cuaron’s film Gravity should be called a truly great film. What it does do is provide a great film experience. When I say it’s ‘breathtaking,’ I mean it literally–I kept forgetting to breathe. It took me two days to recover from watching it. It’s just extraordinary.
Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a NASA scientist in space for the first time. George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, a space program veteran, and an expert on zero-G survival. As the film begins, she’s trying to fix a malfunctioning piece of equipment essential to the experiment she’s up there to perform. He’s goofing around, telling funny stories to Mission Control and generally having a ball. Then everything goes wrong.
The first fifteen minutes or so of the film are this extended, seamless single take, the camera sort of floating around up there, showing us Bullock’s repair job, Clooney’s clowning, and a third astronaut, Shariff, off doing something else. Then debris from a destroyed satellite slashes through everything, destroying the shuttle, killing Shariff, and the camera captures it, the spinning shuttle shedding equipment, the two astronauts fending off shrapnel. It ends with Bullock alone, trapped in immensity of space, and we hear her terrified breathing, as Clooney, ever calmly, tries to find her, tries to rescue her. Still all just one take.
I don’t know how much time the film is supposed to cover. My guess is about four or five hours; certainly not much more than that. The film itself clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes.
But I also have no idea how he did it. I mean, basically every shot of the film, stuff had to float around. And by ‘stuff floating,’ I mean actors. Floating. Either they got special permission from NASA to send a film crew up on the shuttle (unlikely), or Alfonso Cuaron and his incredible crew invented some entirely new ways to use computer graphics, animation and heaven-knows-what new kinds of camera gizmos to create, in studio, a zero-grav environment.
Cuaron’s last film, The Children of Men, ended with an extended ten-plus minute take that was the most compelling, powerful, emotionally affecting piece of filmmaking I’d seen in years. He’s now matched it, with the first fifteen minutes of this film.
And yet, it’s so simple, the story this film tells. In essence, the script follows the Aristotelian unities of time, space and action; the forced compression of dramatic action the Renaissance thought Aristotle demanded. In fact, of course, Aristotle himself had no notion of any unities–they were the invention of the Italian Renaissance scholar Ludovico Castelvetro. But driving home afterwards, I was reminded of Castelvetro, who didn’t think the unities, or drama generally, had any particular moral purpose. He just thought a taut, compressed story was exciting dramatically. Led to pity and fear.
And boy does it. Oh my freaking heck. My wife grabbed my hand early on, and I was glad she did; I couldn’t let go of hers either. Pity and fear–you bet. We’re terrified for Bullock’s character. And we feel really really bad for her.
And that’s about it. The story couldn’t be simpler. With the shuttle destroyed, the astronauts have to see if they can reach the International Space Station. They can use the Soyuz spacecraft there as lifeboats. Of course, Clooney’s jetpacks are low on fuel, and Bullock’s space suit is nearly out of oxygen. Then, when the Soyuz craft turn out to have been wrecked too, there’s a Chinese space station, with an escape pod they can use–so they might make it there. And that’s the entire movie–space shuttle to space station to Soyuz to Chinese station to escape pod. To Earth. That’s the entire movie.
But it’s not, obviously. Aristotle wasn’t interested in the unities, but he did write quite a bit about beauty, and that’s part of the wonder of this film–how lovely it is. The Earth, for starters–this giant green globe just off the astronauts’ shoulders, or in the background as they struggle, or at times, gone, as a lone astronaut floats off the wrong the direction; gone, but also omnipresent in their (and our) thoughts. At one particularly dangerous point, Clooney says ‘the sunset over the Ganges is so beautiful,’ and then we catch a glimpse ourselves.
But space has its own beauty. A tear floats off Bullock’s cheek, and slowly towards the camera, and as it gets close, we can see her face reflected. We can see the sunlight reflect off Bullock’s space mask, and then it lights up the earth. When she floats through the space shuttle, she has to deal with human detritus–pens and notepads and dishes and bottles, and then, a moment of space whimsy, a Marvin the Martian doll. And Bullock seems so liberated by zero G; swimming through the shuttle like a dolphin. In one particularly lovely moment, she shrugs out of her bulky space suit, and, exhausted, curls up briefly to rest. And, floating, her body curls into the fetal position. And a stray cable of some kind floats into the frame, and gives her an umbilical cord.
Sandra Bullock is now 49 years old. We first noticed her as the bus driving passenger in Speed, and she was the ‘girl next door’ ever after, using her charm and humor and off-handed beauty in rom-com after rom-com. She won an unexpected Oscar for The Blind Side, playing a take-no-crap Southern matron. Now, at an age where actresses start to see their opportunities diminish, she’s going to be nominated, and is likely to win, her second Oscar. Her performance here, as a humorless scientist with a tragic past, would seem to be out of her comfort zone. But it isn’t really. She’s always been great at playing insecurity, playing women in inexplicable pain, even in more conventional movies–in Miss Congeniality, say, or While You Were Sleeping. Not great films, either of them, but she held them together, and there was always more going on with her than the formulaic screenplays allowed. Anyway, she’s brilliant in this, absolutely brilliant. It’s actually a pretty conventional woman-in-peril film, despite the brilliance of the filmmaking. She elevates it.
Gravity‘s Rotten Tomatoes score is 98, which suggests to me that two percent of our nation’s professional film critics need to find a different line of work. It reminds me of when Willie Mays was nominated for the Hall of Fame, and was inducted with 95% of the vote. Five percent of Baseball Hall of Fame voters didn’t think Willie Mays was good enough? Are you kidding me? But I have a friend who didn’t like Gravity, and when asked why, said ‘what’s it about? Where’s the substance?’ I suppose that’s fair. It’s about a space rescue–there’s not a lot more to it. The message, if you need one, would seem to be ‘don’t blow up old spy satellites, Russia, because of the possibility of cascading debris damage.’ Or maybe it’s just about the law of unintended consequences.
I don’t think so, though. I think it’s Castelvetro–compressing dramatic action heightens our emotional response. And who cares if it means anything? My wife and I had an incredible film experience the other night. Not much else matters.