The Gravitas of Gravity

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Cuarón’s Gravity

(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.

If you like where these words are going, follow them on my blog or get connected with twitter @binarybastard

Further reading:

A great exploration of the film’s themes and allusions:

A look at the visual effects (sadly no video footage or VFX comparisons):

And an intriguing piece on the film’s electrifying soundtrack:


17 thoughts on “The Gravitas of Gravity

  1. “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.'” I thought this was a really good point in your review. I like how you bring the audience into it because the audience is super important to the film. The whole movie is a metaphor the audience must unwind! Great stuff! I attached my review if you are interested:

    • I agree about the importance of the audience. Despite being set in space, this film was never meant to exist in a vacuum. The audience I saw it with just sat there as the credits rolled, mesmerized, and trying to absorb the audacity of the experience. There was no applause, no conversation, no movement, just rapt attention.

      • That’s always the best when the audience doesn’t leave the theater very fast because of how great the film is! The best theater going experience I had was after seeing “Milk” the whole audience clapped.

      • Oof! Well, if they like it, who am I to quibble with their enjoyment? I just have this misguided hope they might like some obscure foreign film just as much if they knew that the emotional and intellectual content were just as bombastic as any explosion Bay could cook up, albeit on a dense, abstract level few bother to tread.

  2. Saw it in IMAX 3D opening night. Woot.
    Bullock’s performance made me absolve her previous acting sins in The Blind Side and Crash. (Her performances were not bad in those films, but the films are deeply flawed in their own ways. Don’t get me started on Crash.)

    Also, AHHH! How did I not see the Three Colors: Blue connection?! The only thing that makes me hesitant to say Kieslowski could have made this film is that the dialogue is very on the nose in terms of theme, and I find that this kind of thematic directness/obviousness isn’t in his purview. But it’s still a good comparison.

    The script is economical and totally purposefully, refreshing when surrounded by tons of films with plot mechanisms for the sake of spectacle and film length. The film’s script is also very …obvious, as is the spread of birth imagery throughout the film (various umbilical cords that float and are severed, etc.) I don’t begrudge the film for clear and present craft, though there was a intriguing Slate article that wonders if the film will become a camp classic because of the transparent symbolism and on the nose dialogue.

    Might add more thoughts as they come ^.^

    • This is an excellent point, one which I myself as a shambolic artist grapple with constantly. How adroit do we need to be? Too subtle and the audience won’t get it, too on-the-nose and you risk treating the reader as an idiot. That said, I do think it’s a great primer text for reintroducing audiences to sci-fi. How many people who wouldn’t be interested in anything not set on earth would now be more open to the liberating potential offered by the science-fiction genre? If this is the gateway drug to more people watching 2001, or more filmmakers being allowed to make films like this and 2001, then so be it. I think the high level of technical expertise and craftsmanship on display will keep it from ever being relegated to pure kitsch, but I don’t deny Cuaron is a tad heavy handed with some of his metaphors and allusions, particularly the birth imagery. Still, there’s much to be teased out of the film, including those strange moments where Cuaron let’s us know this is a camera watching Bullock, like those two moments where droplets hit the lens. The latter I suspect was incidental, the first was unmistakably computer generated. Why do that? I haven’t figured it out yet, and I may never truly figure it out, but I’m happy to continue revisiting the film until I do.
      I agree with your Kieslowski point: it’s not exact, but then what artist was there like Kieslowski? Yet I think the basic principles (particularly in the economy of editing and the precision of the storytelling) are pure Kieslowski. I remember an anecdote of his where he reflected on the days he spent dissolving sugar cubes in coffee to find the brand which would dissolve in a certain number of seconds that Kieslowski had determined was the sufficient amount of time an audience needed to understand what a dissolving sugar cube meant.
      Keep the ideas coming! Or post them on your own blog and we can keep this going back and forth.

  3. After reading your piece on Gravity, I had to go see it. It’s still sinking in, but I thought it was pretty interesting the way the ending paralleled another movie you wrote about recently, Skyfall. Both movies end by the same two step baptism . . . first by fire, then by water.

    I forget the exact line, but I was totally floored by Clooney’s line about how they keep talking because they don’t know that no one is listening. It also struck me as an example of that fine line you talked about, the line between that which is too subtle and that which is too on-the-nose. It could have gone either way, but the risk payed off in a powerful way.

    • I hadn’t actually read any religious significance into the finale of Gravity, which the more I think about it the stupider I feel for overlooking, because of course Cuaron is inviting those ideas, hence the glimpses of saints and the buddha and that brief scene about prayer.

      I kept thinking about the “on-the-nose” bit, and I think the problem is when the most obvious meaning is the only meaning, when there’s no wiggle room for interpretation. So I think the fact that you see baptism and I see stages of evolution, that one might see it as a religious journey and another might see it as one of discovery suggests that maybe Cuaron isn’t being as overt as we might fear. That said, I think it’s amazing that we could be seeing two sides of the same coin, and being invited to recognize the interesting points of connection between the two concepts, and to consider what kind of renewal we might achieve from that.

      All this week I’ve been going through gravity withdrawal. I just want to watch it again. I also can’t wait to see how they made this. I think it would only enhance my appreciation for the film more.

  4. I do like evolution better than baptism. It brings to mind the metaphor of human beings as quenched steel . . . forged in fire, strengthened by water.

  5. I also just wanted to mention how much I loved the “WALL-E moment” where Sandra Bullock uses the fire extinguisher to propel herself.

  6. The ideal format to watch Gravity is really on IMAX 3D. I’ve seen it on FauxMax 3D (Cinemark XD) and 2D digital and one loses a lot of that IMAX 3D immersion with those smaller formats.

    On the technical side of things, I believe that Cuaron has done a gear job in advancing digital filmmaking, especially 3D, with this film. None of the 3D look and act like gimmicks the way most 3D has been used (with the exception of Avatar, Hugo. And this past summer’s Pacific Rim) these past 4-5 years.

    It goes to show that when a filmmaker accepts and works with the tools handed to them (3D, digital effects, green screens) the overall result of their work shows the quality.

    Gravity is definitely not your latest Resident Evil entry and Cuaron is not Paul W. Anderson.

  7. While I’m not surprised you loved this film, I am surprised about some of the reasons you loved it. I think this is an incredible cinematic experience with some of the best photography EVER, however the script is definitely lacking. The themes of rebirth are so heavy handed, and that last monologue was so cheesy regardless of how well delivered it was. But really none of that matter best it’s SUCH an incredible ride with such groundbreaking and brilliant shots that I barely noticed.

    • I do agree that the themes were heavy-handed, but I think I’m just so happy to have a proper science-fiction film after all these years that actually tries to say and do something beyond showing things explode. As a child weaned on the cinema of Spielberg, I can be a real sucker for symbolism and emotional manipulations. I think I can forgive Cuaron his overt manipulations and his perhaps leaden messages because he presents them with such technical finesse and visual grace. And as an ardent lover of Shakespeare I forgive writers their lengthy monologues. I do remember it perhaps containing a few too many words than I would have preferred, but then I figured that by that point Cuaron had earned the right to preach as Bullock had to garner Oscar buzz. I think ultimately the questions to ask are: Does this information need to be provided? Was there no other way to reveal it than having it be spoken? And, finally, what is gained and lost to the pace, nuance and depth of the film by this admission?

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