(95% Spoiler free, read without caution)
If Kieslowski had ever been inclined to tackle science-fiction, Gravity, I suspect, would have been something close to the film he would have made.
Ostensibly a loose remake of Kieslowski’s first film in the Three Colors Trilogy, Blue (1993), Cuarón’s return to film after an agonizing eight-year absence similarly features a bereaved mother struggling to cope with the loss of a child. Indeed, if I explained it is a film that illuminates the startling vicissitudes between life, death, faith, hope and the universe of human emotion, bound up in a work of sublime grandeur, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was still talking about Blue. Cuarón’s singular feat, however, is the way in which he gracefully navigates between the chaos of the universe and the supreme beauty of its idiosyncrasies that we as mere spectators in a cosmic dance have the supreme fortune of observing, and more amazing still, are sometimes called to participate within.
And Ryan is indeed called to action—as befits any journey worth taking. Bullock gives the performance of her career in a fragile, vulnerable role. Numbed by the trauma of her past, Ryan is awoken from her emotional stasis by an orbital disaster. Her struggle for survival becomes an ennobling experience for both her and the audience, succinctly captured by the film’s tagline “Don’t Let Go.” Cuarón struggles with the issue of how to honour life without cheapening the experience of death, and his answer, if familiar, is nonetheless visibly and strenuously applicable to our times. To summarize the film as just being about a woman who must choose to be reborn is to commit a great disservice to Cuarón’s art. His singular genius is in packaging what is ostensibly an abstract drama of a woman emotionally adrift as a thrilling adventure of survival in outer space as Ryan copes with being literally adrift. In effect, Cuarón trades in allegorical dialogue for stark and allusive visual prose, punctuated by lucid moments of sublime poetry. It’s a cinematic experience that rarely comes along, and Cuarón uses every tool at his disposal to ensure it’s one worth experiencing.
That Cuarón says and does more in 90 minutes than most directors manage in all their films combined is but the least of his accomplishments. His magnificence comes from the way in which he blends the broad strokes of his setting to the intimate details of his characters. He juxtaposes panoramas of celestial grace with intimate encounters with equal finesse, in some instances even blurring the lines by giving POV shots of both. Choreographed with exacting and meticulous precision through a jaw-dropping marriage of effects, Cuarón’s visuals always work in the interest of making a statement.
Take for instance the film’s overarching function as a metaphorical vision of birth—another nod, I suspect, to Blue. And like Blue, womb imagery abounds, curiously used to punctuate each new act (or life cycle) in the film. One unmistakable instance in particular arrives early on as a startling reprieve from the chaos; the subtle visual gestates as Ryan strips to her barest and floats in a fetal state, oxygen hoses and tethers flitting about her to complete the embryonic allusion. (Compare this to a similar scene in Blue in which Juliette Binoche floats tucked in the fetal position in the swimming pool, and marvel at how wonderfully Cuarón uses light, colour, CGI and even three-dimensional depth to make his statements.)
These statements resonate with the viewer, thanks also in no small part to the haunting score by Steven Price which modulates between minimalist strains and bombastic abandon with equal finesse. And all of it is completed by some of the most vividly realized special effects yet committed to film. This is the real cinema, this is the transcendent ability for the medium, and it is here captured for the world and, on the more intimate level, for you yourself to see. This is a film to be studied, and read, and enjoyed and watched most of all. Only the most extreme masochist would avoid watching this film.
I’ll be sure to give the film a more thorough analysis when it debuts on blu-ray. Do yourself the supreme pleasure and watch it on as big a screen as you can find in the meantime.
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A great exploration of the film’s themes and allusions: http://www.film.com/movies/god-and-gravity-film-cuaron
A look at the visual effects (sadly no video footage or VFX comparisons): http://www.fxguide.com/featured/gravity/
And an intriguing piece on the film’s electrifying soundtrack: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/10/gravity-space-silence-composer/