Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

Some time during all the floating, thrusting, grunting, grabbing, and despairing gazes towards the void, it occurred to me that Gravity is as astounding a work of special effects as any, ever. Almost immediately after that moment, the film drifted into perhaps its most surprising and tender image, a drifting, natal pose that may be the purest expression of Alfonso Cuarón’s endless preoccupations with birth. There it is, more or less: a film totally invested in grandiose imagery, in the idea that if moments of breathtaking beauty are arranged, paced, and presented correctly, they will be more than enough to captivate for 90 minutes.
There is a story, minimal as it is, and no two-handed cast could carry emotional arcs without being interesting and engaging people. George Clooney’s aging, near-retired astronaut Matt Kowalsky is a non-stop wisecracker whose attitude remains super cool when a spacewalk goes horribly wrong and his team’s shuttle is annihilated by space debris. That dialogue is fantastically written, always hinting at an ulterior motive of emotional control that Clooney delivers as a purely subtextual part of his register. Yet Sandra Bullock holds the real victory playing Ryan Stone, the central ‘naut who is fresh on the job when disaster intervenes. Bullock delivers her best performance by a country mile, absolving herself of all past clunkers and creating a detailed, absorbing portrait of a woman facing down with despair and death. There are moments of Bullock’s performance when she delivers an expression or mannerism — a little window into hope, worry, loneliness, whatever — and it is so far outside any range of physicalization or nuance she has ever shown before, that it’s almost hard to believe that it’s really her. Well, much of it isn’t really her, or at least not pictures of her real flesh captured directly by the camera. Bullock’s accomplishment is multiplied by what must have been an unfathomably difficult shoot, subjecting her to face scanning, acting on a zero-G rig, mimetic movements, and any number of other complicated physical demands that by all rights should render the dynamite work she does impossible. For this, much credit is due to the Tim Webber-supervised effects house Framestore. Webber’s resume already includes Avatar, The Dark Knight, and Children of Men, but it’s for Gravity that his name will be immortalized just as surely as Douglas Trumbull was for 2001 and Blade Runner. The film’s extremely long takes (its average shot length is surely well over a minute) and complicated movements are seamless by any measure; I usually couldn’t discern which shots used composites of the actors’ real faces and which were CGI doubles. And it does all this in a dynamic and convincing 3D environment. By any viewer’s fair estimation, the movie looks to have cost well over $200 million. Its $80 million price tag seems miraculous. Miracles, however, have long been the wheelhouse of Cuarón and his regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The meticulous design of lighting and camerawork finds Lubezki at the height of his modal powers, switching perspectives and with seeming ease while performing immensely complicated tracking shots, all while the incredible placement of lights — all of which must have been determined in preproduction — bathes Bullock and whatever space flotsam surrounds her in sunlight that is by turns hellacious and incandescent. And I’ll be goddamned if those visuals don’t result in an intensely frightening and suspenseful film, and in the wake of the terror, a resolutely humanistic one. Unlike most sci-fi storytellers, Cuarón clearly has little or no interest in any kind of tech politics. Instead, Gravity is a simple but moving journey of the spirit. Is it as complex or intellectually bracing a work as his earlier Children of Men? Absolutely not. It’s a spectacle, and it fully capitalizes on the potential for spectacle to go straight for the heart, and does so as beautifully as you can imagine.


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