Defying Gravity: Cuarón's space flick dazzles

by Jasper Yeo / Film Columnist • October 16, 2013

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is the kind of movie that can immediately command one’s attention. At a school like Emerson, people are always in a rush from one project to another, and often we’re too overworked to appreciate the art we go here to create in the first place. 

Beyond its technical sorcery, Gravity is the perfect solution to the distracted. In many ways, this movie’s greatest strength is its focus. 

For those unfamiliar with the film, Gravity tells the story of astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), who are cast adrift in orbit after being bombarded with space junk. In order to find a passage of safe re-entry, they have to endure obstacle after obstacle. 

In essence, they’re surviving levels of a deadly video game (where the spacesuits and escape pods are controlled via joysticks). And yet, it’s not science fiction so much as a micro-scale disaster film in an extremely traumatic setting. I said this movie will help you focus, but forget about it relieving stress. 

The major talking point of this movie is its 3D effects. Indeed, Cuarón is the latest in the line of high-profile directors taking a stab at the medium. 

However, when I first saw Gravity, it was in two dimensions, and its always interesting to slightly strip down a film to see it as a story first and as a dazzling special effects showcase second. But that isn’t to say the underlying moviemaking technique is lacking. 

While there are still some gimmicky “3D!” movements, Gravity’s strength is in the way the camera floats in zero G, allowing for a non-intrusive vehicle for Cuarón’s trademark extreme long takes. 

The film’s CG also allows the camera to travel through the character’s helmets, though perhaps they ought to have stayed back to spare the audience the near constant heavy breathing that fills the absence of outside sound in the vacuum of space. 

Gravity also accomplishes the rare trick of balancing disorienting POV shots with coherent shots from an extremely long distance. 

The word “game-changing” has been thrown around with this film. While the term certainly has been cheapened over the years, it’s interesting to see how Gravity places itself in the cinematic lineage of outer space depictions. Although the movie is stuffed with more declarations of “bad feelings” than a George Lucas movie, the obvious comparison is to 2001: A Space Odyssey

Certainly both are depictions of a hazardous journey through space using the most advanced effects technology of their respective times. One point in Gravity’s favor: The models of Earth are better than 2001s. But it’s funny to think that decades after the Cold War, the Russians are still portrayed as the (indirect and accidental) cause of the catastrophe.

The movie is not without its faults. One common criticism is the story’s lack of depth outside of the visuals, though I do not agree. 

In fact, Gravity has almost the opposite problem, as the backstories of the characters often butt their way in and sometimes fail to mesh well with the movie as a whole. 

There had to be something to fill the time between perilous situations, and there are no establishing scenes, but personal drama threatened to distract from the very immediate danger surrounding the characters. 

There was an inspirational Hollywood message that felt somewhat earned, but too separate from the sheer spectacle the rest of the movie had to offer.

In the end, pure spectacle is what Gravity has to offer. Original use of physics like the tense grasping of the spacewalk scenes work, while scenes like escaping a fireball feel rather stock. Nevertheless, Gravity is a movie that’s both grounded in its basic science and fascinatingly alien in its rarely-explored setting. 

This approach certainly makes an interesting contrast with Cuarón’s good friend Guillermo Del Toro’s conception of science fiction as the ultimate childhood wish fulfillment in Pacific Rim earlier this year. 

Both succeed immensely at their goals, and prove that big, out-there movies don’t have to be slaves to special effects, but can use them to create a much more detailed, and focused, story.