I’m still not sure if it was the three beers I had before the screening or the raw influence of Alfonso Cuarón’s filmmaking that made me list bodily about thirty degrees to the left during the last half of Gravity (I pat myself on the back for the foresight of booking an aisle seat). When they were serving me, both the bartender and waiter of the restaurant at the Arclight Hollywood scanned me with that singular American Puritanical opprobrium, you know, that pursed look they get when they’re thinking you might be better off at an AA meeting or preferably in rehab than at sneak screening of what everyone knows is an instant classic; after all, it is the Best Goddamn Cinema in the World, where the very seats are woven from the beards of cinephiles.
“I couldn’t drink before seeing Gravity,” sniffed the waiter. “I think I’d be sick.” The bartender agreed. I’m not sure I agree. Such is the impact of the film and the way it is made that I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d ended up standing on my head even if I had been stone-cold sober, had the seats and fear of public humiliation not restrained me. Indeed, unless Richard Branson gets a move on with these Virgin Galaxy flights and they become commonplace within my lifetime, seeing Gravity is the closest approximation I am likely to experience of what being in outer space is like. And the exprience is stunning, awe-inspiring, terrifying, vertiginous and nauseating, and apparently a lot like deep-sea scuba diving without the resistance of water — there you go: another hack into the experience that won’t set you back the hundreds of thousands Branson will soak you for for a few minutes of the real thing.
The ocean, specifically the primordial ocean from which life on this planet emerged, is a central motif in the film, which follows the fate of Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), the sole survivors of destruction of their space shuttle after it is peppered with high-velocity space debris (all the fault of those fucking Russians, of course). Tethered together, they must fight insurmountable odds in an attempt to return to Earth. Among their obstacles are diminishing fuel and oxygen, the restrictions of being in the life-prohibiting vacuum of space, and the on-going threat of being peppered by that fucking Russian debris every hour and a half as it makes its inexorable orbit around Earth.
If Gravity is a space opera it’s on the level of Turandot, complete with a final aria in the form of a crescendo sequence that almost ejects you from your seat to applaud. You’re applauding the apex of a mélange of elements: that celebration of Man’s Indomitable Spirit, so commonplace in entertainment yet so freshly rendered here; that triumphant synthesis of image and music and story; the visceral realization that you haven’t just watched, you have experienced cinematic technique at its finest.
James Cameron himself said in Variety, “I think it’s the best space photography ever done, I think it’s the best space film ever done, and it’s the movie I’ve been hungry to see for an awful long time.” If I think of Gravity compared to Avatar, it’s as if Cuarón has accidentally thumbed his nose at Cameron and said, This is how it’s done, you dilletante. While I enjoyed it immensely, Avatar today more than ever seems like nothing more than a garish amusement ride I can barely remember, whereas I want to go back and experience Gravity again and again like a child after seeing The Lion King for the first time.
The production stories behind Gravity are by now more epic than the film itself, which in any case isn’t so much epic in a Wagnerian sense; the story is too intimate — it’s simply that it is set against the most expansive canvas humans can realistically experience, and that visual scope boosts the narrative well beyond its real limits. In fact, Gravity’s sense of intimacy makes it a far closer relative to Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También than it is to his more effects-laden movies like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which rebooted that series after that troglodyte Chris Columbus’ first two turds-on-film.
The clearest layman’s overview of said epic production is by Marlow Stern in The Daily Beast, which I would urge you to read. On a personal level, I am greatly moved that Cuarón collaborated with his son Jonas on the script, which is sturdy but by not means the most dazzling production element (the same goes for the performances). Creative partnerships are the most arduous of professional relationships, peppered constantly by the dangerous, high-velocity debris of egos, by the greater rightness of one individual’s vision over another’s. Family dynamics in Anglo-American culture, in which the individual is valued well above the family unit, makes that creative partnership all the more arduous and rare. I have always looked with envy on Euro/Latin and Indian filmmaking families that are able to collaborate this fruitfully.
In the weeks leading up to Gravity’s release, Cuarón kept calling other 3D movies “crap” in various industry interviews. It got to the point where I thought the director was becoming uncharacteristically full of himself in the wake of so much positive feedback from Gravity’s screenings at the three marquee festivals, Venice, Telluride and Toronto — his last outing, Children of Men, was met with scorn. He clarifies his point in the interview with Stern — that 3D conversions are crap — but the reality is Cuarón has pushed the format to a new level, making almost everything that has come before look like crap; for instance, it utterly outclasses last year’s The Life of Pi.
To begin with, the technology is so seamlessly integrated into the visuals that it’s almost pointless to see Gravity in 2D. The same goes for the sound design: you need to experience this in Dolby 7.1 at the very minimum — Dolby Atmos would be preferable — or you will lose the sensory symbolism of that primordial ocean that is such a crucial subtext. (Oh, and those undulating, umbilical seaweeds of tethers and cables and robes!) Cuarón and his longtime cinematographer, Chivo Lubeski, have also taken great care to smooth out the jumps in parallax shifts that can be so jarring to the audience in 3D, but which I didn’t realize were part of the problem with the format until they showed us by doing it with so much more care. Again, you have to experience firsthand how Cuarón switches parallax from objective camera to subjective — this is no longer mere expert filmmaking, it’s legerdemain.
This film is so deservedly ballyhooed that by writing this piece I feel like Clooney’s character out for a spacewalk, simply another white spec puffing around among the countless stars of excited chatter. Comparisons are flying in and crashing all around, particularly to 2001: A Space Odyssey — the screenplay’s original title, Gravity: A Space Adventure in 3D, deliberately doffs the project’s hat to Kubrick’s classic. However, filmmakers are no longer allowed to be as esoteric in their storytelling as Kubrick was; there is no way you can make a $100-million film and leave the audience scratching their heads as to the ending’s meaning. To that end, there are some pat elements to the screenplay, some clichés — I’m not sure you can avoid cliché when you’re generously throwing Mankind’s Indomitable Spirit into the mix — but they are entirely forgiven because they are as essential to the production as the technology Cuarón and his team developed specifically for this film. You so appreciate the effort they put into it that you come away grateful, despite having shelled out top dollar for the experience.
I think a more appropriate reference than 2001 would be Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, about the unlikely survival of the astronauts from that mission. One of the more awe-inspiring aspects of Gravity is that it showcases technology we actually have, not inventions we are imagining for the future; in that sense, this is sci-fi realism, which makes it more impactful than the run-of-the-mill example of the genre because the realism exponentially enhances believability. And that is one of the ways the film celebrates the triumph of mankind: by alluding to our emergence from the primordial womb of the umbilical-seaweed ocean to evolve into the space-tripping beings we are today. Add to that the fact we have the technology and the artistry to entertain ourselves by creating a film like Gravity… it all becomes so meta that I’m now threatening to tip myself upside down and float into an existential morass.
And that moment, That Moment: A lyrical teardrop hovering without gravity in the middle of the theater, a single droplet that sings of our struggles as individual beings, of our existence as an integral part of all creation, of our heartbreak, of our joy, of our origins, of our destiny… the cosmos in that single-moment drop of water… Divine.