by Paul Deines
About 40 minutes into Alfonso Cuarón’s new film Gravity, I realized I had misunderstood what type of movie it is. The advanced press, the advertising, and the ominous opening suggest something like Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Kubrick’s 2001, ruminations on the cruelty of the void. Then the tone shifts slightly, and we realize there’s something unexpected at the center of the film: human resilience.
In case you haven’t been touched by the unrelenting hype around the film, Gravity centers on two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) who survive a catastrophic debris storm that disables their ship. They career in zero gravity, struggling toward neighboring space stations in a desperate play for survival.
And survival is a far more compelling motivation than heroism. I’m bored with characters saving the world, be they Bond, Wayne, Kirk, Stark, or Kal-El. Bullock and Clooney’s journey through the vacuum is entrancing because we wholly connect with the desire not to die in the cold emptiness. In this regard, Gravity reminds me of another perfectly pitched survivalist entertainment: Jurassic Park.
Like Spielberg’s seminal work of peril and pluck, Gravity is a ridiculously ripping yarn. Carp all you like about the dubious science or the clunky dialogue, but there is simply no way to watch the film without being transported. Like Jurassic Park, it is utterly seamless in its use of technology to serve a tight genre and assemble a series of stunning sequences. The nearly twenty minute unbroken opening shot – a Cuarón signature – is a standout, but the second debris storm, it think, is the high point. Watching the breaking apart of a Russian space station in the nerve-jangling silence of space, as Steven Price’s soundtrack throbs discordantly, you understand what catastrophe is. In a year when the White House has been blown apart twice, this is the most shattering spectacle of 2013.
There are also moments of quiet poignancy, as when Bullock finds temporary refuge in a module and reverts to a fetal state. Tellingly, though, these moments rarely involve dialogue. The script by Cuarón and his son Jonás is a paced economically, by laden with awkward interchanges and shoe-horned back-story. Yet this fault is mitigated the winning presence of our stars. Clooney doesn’t stretch too far from his comfort zone, but his rakish charm is a fine counterpoint to the brutal circumstances around him. Bullock, meanwhile, is a wonder, carrying much of the narrative in her quavering voice and fierce eyes. Watching her here, I wonder why I ever begrudged her the success during her romantic comedy decade.
But the real start of the film is its director. It’s difficult to pin down Alfonso Cuarón’s directorial aesthetic except to say he is a consummate stylist. He has a knack for ingesting film tradition and pairing the appropriate style to his work. He brought Murnau to his wizard movie and Costa-Gavras to his dystopian thriller. Even a dud like his modern-day Great Expectations has off-kilter sequences and wonderful performances. He’s a mass-market director with art house bonafides, like Paul Greengrass or Guillermo Del Toro. I don’t know whether he’ll produce a transcendently great film, but his work is always engrossing and deeply memorable. Gravity, too, is probably not an all-time great, but damn is it hard to shake.