'Gravity' and the Cinema of Pure Experience

I've been waiting for Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity for nearly seven years. Long before I knew that it would ever exist, I stumbled out of a packed theater on a cold New Year's evening after my first viewing of Children of Men eagerly anticipating whatever the director's follow-up would be. I had always been a fan, but now he had joined the pantheon.

Gravity is a very different movie than his previous effort, even as it becomes so by following some of the stylistic inclinations of its predecessor to their near-absolute extremes. The jaw-dropping extended takes with which Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot the action sequences on their last collaboration have here become the standard visual unit. In an American Cinematographer article published to coincide with the previous film's release, the duo talked about their desire to avoid more conventional coverage and instead find ways to shoot scenes whenever possible within single meaningful shots (hewing closely to the DePalma maxim that "coverage is a dirty word"); this time around, there seem to be nothing but a series of beautifully composed and executed master shots, tracking and dipping and panning with a constant fluidity completely appropriate given the zero-g setting and constant instability of the lead character's situation. The camera floats along with the same lack of mooring as Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone, and in doing so Cuaron and his crew are not only anchoring their aesthetic to narrative and thematic dictates, but indeed expanding a visual language that all-too-often becomes shackled by safety and convention. The technical wizardry on display, the sheer awe and slack-jawed reverence that one has for the exhaustive measures that the filmmakers went to in order to fully realize this vision, creates just as much excitement in the viewer as the thrillingly tense central narrative.

And yet whereas Children of Men was ultimately a very human narrative about one man's emotional/political/spiritual reawakening set against the backdrop of a dystopian science fiction fairy tale, Gravity is much more of a visceral experience than a successful story. It's very much a moody survival film built around a series of bravura action sequences. We sit at the edge of our seats as Stone floats from one threat to another not so much because we sympathize with her character so much as because we are put directly into her point of view (often literally). Yet it's a tricky proposition when the visual language of the film so successfully conveys the emotional state of a character who has given up on life and chosen to merely exist. The fluidly untethered movement of the image perfectly reflects the emotional aimlessness of the lead, and yet there is a resultant emotional distance even as the film (aided just as much by the gorgeous audio design as the peerless visuals) completely envelopes you, and even still despite the fact that Bullock's physical struggles to survive to the next point in her quest allow her character to have a sense of drive and purpose despite her near-constant emotional willingness to float off into the welcoming void of space [1].

The intensely subjective camerawork is even more significant given the fact that the main influence on the film's structure - narrative, visual, sonic - seems to be that of video games. Stone basically moves from one level to another, and is even guided by the detached voice of George Clooney's veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, at least until she levels up enough that the tutorial phase is over and he is dispatched [2].  It was only inevitable that the language of games begin to seep into that of the cinema, and while Gravity suggests that it may not be an entirely lamentable symbiosis it also points out the potential limitations. I am admittedly not much of a gamer, yet in my limited experience it seems clear that any emotional connection one has to the game play comes from the fact that you are the one in control of the character - it's not a passive experience, and so the mechanism of empathy is entirely different from that used when watching a film, in which one is an observer picking up on various visual, audio, and emotional cues in order to follow the plot, theme, and meaning of the story. That wouldn't be such a sticking point if Gravity was designed as some sort of intellectual statement on how the way we interact with the world is changed by the media we consume and the ways in which we ingest it, but this is a big-budget blockbuster that is built to move and transport the audience rather than challenge them, and so the slight disconnect is more intensely felt. As something that you experience rather than feel, Gravity succeeds as a thrilling cinematic accomplishment while perhaps falling a just a little bit short as an engaging dramatic one.

There is no doubt that Gravity is a technical marvel whose effects work and use of stereoscopic imagery [3] set a new standard. Walking out of the theater this time, I was gobsmacked by it, if not shaken to the core in the way that I was by Children of Men. It is a movie that anyone who cares about cinema as an art form should see, and it is a new benchmark for all that modern special effects and technical wizardry are able to accomplish when utilized by passionate, talented filmmakers. In an age in which more and more major films are becoming so dependent on digital trickery, this is the kind of film that shows the way in which those tools can actually be used to aid artists in pursuit of expressing the limits of their imaginations rather than to merely slather pixels over the empty stretches of lackluster scripts (I'll take an infinite number of Gravities over the multiple Avatar sequels that we're intermittently threatened with). I don't think it's the future of cinema, but I do believe it shines a light onto some exciting avenues down which the form may stretch itself in the coming years.

- cs

[1] It may also be a personal reaction to stereoscopic photography, which even at its best tends to have more of a distancing effect upon me than the intended immersion. As opposed to a two-dimensional image, which replicates physical depth through framing and lighting and works in tandem with the emotional and narrative depth of a given film to draw me into the narrative to the extent that the world around me disappears, 3D lensing always makes me even more aware of the edges of the frame, as the individual planes themselves always appear flat and synthetic while those at the forefront also disappear abruptly at screen's end. I will say that Gravity does a phenomenal job of avoiding these problems for the most part, as there is not only depth between layers but within individual layers themselves. I will also say at this point that I did not see the film in IMAX, a format which may have further alleviate the above issues, though since it was not shot natively in the format I don't feel all that guilty about not doing so (but I would still like to).

[2] Before you cry "spoiler," rest assured that if this comes as any surprise at all given his lack of exposure in the marketing materials beyond mention of his name and after the first thirty seconds of the film reveal that this is his final mission, then you probably haven't seen a movie before. In which case I actually would feel bad for spoiling it, so fire away.

[3] And this is indeed the first film that I will unabashedly insist that everyone, despite their feelings on the technology overall, see in 3-D (despite the dividends that Martin Scorsese and Robert Richardson were able to yield from the format in Hugo, I heretofore and without irony considered Jackass 3-D and Piranha 3D to be the apices of the process). In fact, this may be the first instance in which seeing it in any format other than that intended may seriously limit the impact and enjoyment of the film.