Throughout the history of film there have been many seminal, groundbreaking movies that change the cinematic landscape by its sheer existence. Sometimes through technological advances and sometimes through radical narrative shifts, these films are both rare and often under appreciated during their initial release. Even rarer than these kind of legendary films is a movie that manages to break barriers in technology and accepted narrative devices. Hyperbole aside, I contend that Gravity, the latest by Alfonso Cuaron is this kind of movie. Not just a film, but a visceral and very human experience, Gravity advances what we as a communal audience dreamt possible on a visual and effects level. That fact being impressive enough, it also introduces such a compelling narrative that works on so many levels, including its most elemental allegory of the human lifecycle. Because of this, Gravity elevates itself into that rare work of art that engages the audience on a chemical, physical, emotional, and intellectual level.
The basic introduction of plot in Gravity could be considered high concept. Three astronauts doing routine work in space are trapped, and subsequently cut-off from Earth, by unforeseen obstacles. The rest of the movie is a basic struggle for survival. Breaking it down to that base level makes Gravity seem pretty straightforward, perhaps even narratively simple. The truth, though, is that this story is just the container of what plays out on screen. The success of Gravity is in the visuals and the experiences that play out as an allegory for the universal arc of the human lifespan. There are specific shots within the film that intentionally recreate a fetus in the womb and those awkward first steps of a child. While these are subtle and don’t directly affect the larger narrative of the film, they do undoubtedly add to the message of the film.
With that said, Gravity works exceptionally well based simply on the merits of a tense action film. The action sequences are so intense and life-like an audience member would be forgiven an actual rise in heart rate. This is accomplished through the amazing technical prowess of Cuaron and company. Usually nothing more than a marketing ploy, the 3-D here is one of those rare cases that legitimizes its use as a cinematic tool. Not only adding layers to the action, the 3-D is so well done and realistic that it manages to pull an audience member into this world so completely that the tension is more than a narrative tool, it is palpable. We, as viewers, are captured in this out of control world with our protagonists. Film is about effective world-building and Cuaron uses the 3-D to build the hell out of this world.
Take all of this, the amazing technical filmmaking on display and the complex and layered narrative, and you have a pretty impressive film. But then, Cuaron takes the risk of laying the entire cinematic ecosystem on the shoulders of two actors. One performance gaff and all of that world building could be for naught. Luckily for Gravity, the two actors are Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Both performers bring such nuance and, excuse the pun, gravity to their roles that they manage to not only avoid diminishing the world of Gravity, they add to the texture of the film substantially. Especially Bullock, who deserves any awards she wins, who brings such a complex and layered performance that the entire meaning of the film shifts based on just a few of her facial expressions. The allegory alluded to above is largely in the performance of Bullock and the exchanges she shares with Clooney.
As a fan of movies, I always wondered what it would have been like to see classic films during their first release, when the energy is fresh and the theatre going experience is a communal gathering of unknown expectations. What must it have been like to see “2001: A Space Odyssey” during its premiere? While certain generations can never know the answer to that question, I can honestly say that this week I had the fortune of seeing one of those landmark moments in cinema history. Gravity is not only an excellent film, it is one that will be studied and admired for generations to come.