She’s So Heavy
By Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, U.S., Warner Bros.
The films of Alfonso Cuarón usually take place in the wake of ruptures or traumas. These are sometimes geopolitical in nature (A Little Princess’s World War I, Children of Men’s World War III), sometimes personal (Y tu mama tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). In each instance, though, whatever their causes, his movies’ instigating traumas have catastrophic domestic consequences that render their protagonists’ nuclear families unstable and often require some heroic self-sacrifice to produce not so much a restoration as a viable reconfiguration. Despite incorporating elements of fantasy and showcasing often thrilling craft, Cuarón’s movies are therefore weighed down by an oppressive and fundamentally irresolvable sense of melancholy. Unlike the superficially similar films of Steven Spielberg, which demonstrate an overriding conservatism, Cuarón’s movies are driven by an impulse towards progress rather than recuperation, transformation instead of return.
Gravity, Cuarón’s long-gestating follow-up to Children of Men, distills this impulse down to elemental proportions. An efficient, technically audacious hour-and-a-half survival narrative, Gravity demonstrates both a spectacular formal ambition and a single-minded, bordering on simplistic, narrative focus. It opens with the first of a number of astonishing lengthy single takes—one that starts silently with an image of the Earth, ends with astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) floating untethered in the emptiness of space after an accident caused by satellite debris, and, in between, features sweeping camera movements that toggle from close-ups of Bullock and co-star George Clooney’s faces to vast, CGI-enabled sci-fi action set pieces. This impressive opening sequence, like the one that begins Children of Men, serves both to impress the viewer and to establish setting and a rigorous adherence to point-of-view. Gravity finds Cuarón once again employing sound design (the faint beating of a heart, the ringing of a character’s ears after she hits her head), mise-en-scène, and subjective camerawork to convey maximal narrative and emotional information with minimal exposition. Unlike Cuarón’s earlier films, though, Gravity has barely any narrative ground to cover: once it gets Ryan in orbit, lost and alone 600 km above the earth, it begins the task of trying to bring her home.
The goal of survival, though, may be a red herring. Clooney’s shuttle commander Matt Kowalski attempts to calm Bullock’s Ryan after the accident, asking her to think about the life she has waiting for her in her hometown of Lake Zurich, Illinois, but Ryan reveals that she has nothing to go home to, only ghosts. When her four-year old daughter died after a simple fall, her life became unmoored; all she does in her free time in Lake Zurich, she admits, is “drive.” This early confession transforms Ryan’s immediate predicament into an obvious metaphor for her existential weariness. As Cuarón’s movie reminds us in an opening title card, “Life in space is impossible;” before Gravity even begins, however, Ryan is already basically living in space—suspended, weightless, adrift.
Cuarón thus structures his screenplay (coauthored by his son Jonás) around Ryan’s existential reawakening. To survive, she must choose life. This conceit feels both overly schematic and underdramatized. Gravity has no room for psychologizing beyond its depiction of Ryan’s emotional torpor, and as a result, it reduces Kowalski—the other hand in this two-hander—to the role of sidekick, coach, and martyr. He adds a welcome bit of levity with his flirtatious banter and his let-me-tell-you-a-story yarn spinning, but, in a failure of both screenwriting and performance, Clooney’s Kowalski demonstrates no recognizably human sense of either fear or serenity when circumstances force him to make life-or-death decisions. He exists—even when miraculously present late in the film through some form of divine (or at least directorial) intervention—only to move Ryan’s story forward.
Through its similarly rigorous approach to cinematic subjectivity, Children of Men shared the single-minded sense of narrative purpose that propels Gravity. In that film, though, Theo (Clive Owen), also reeling from the death of a child, found meaning beyond himself, raising the stakes of his spiritual redemption. Theo’s story became, in essence, the story of humanity itself. Despite its staggering scale, his latest is a comparatively small film, one that hinges fully on its likeable but limited star, who can’t supply Gravity’s necessary gravitas. She spends her time, alternately, reacting to elements of Cuarón’s largely computer-generated and -composited shocks (a dead astronaut’s face ripped open and frozen as a picture of his family drifts alongside him; a fire raging through an international space station) and uttering often inane dialogue to herself (“I hate space,” she sighs). Cuarón puts her—and by extension, us—through the ringer without giving anyone much of a reason to care about the outcome.
Gravity exposes a latent tension in Cuarón’s oeuvre between virtuosity and dramaturgy. More so than in any of his previous movies, it finds Cuarón the show-off overpowering Cuarón the humanist. And still, it’s a testament to the extraordinary visual achievement of the film that its visceral accomplishments are enough to recommend it. Working here with his longtime collaborator the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who shot Terrence Malick’s last three features), and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, Cuarón has crafted a succession of densely packed images where light (real and virtual) reflects off surfaces both physical and animated in a manner that feels utterly convincing, where objects large and small—celestial bodies, space stations, helmets, screws, and tears—float over and past each other in a 3D dance of dangerous proximity and agonizing distance. Gravity often lives up to the gauntlet thrown by its first unbroken single shot, and when Cuarón and coeditor Mark Sanger depart from their long-take aesthetic, they do so by elegantly placed, punctuating cuts that serve to further ratchet up the tension.
It’s not just that Gravity is a more thrilling and expertly choreographed piece of action cinema than anything else a Hollywood studio has put out in quite some time—though it is—it’s also that it displays, like Children of Men before it, an uncommon level of visual intelligence. Cuarón keeps his mise-en-scène fairly busy, with objects of varying degrees of narrative importance floating on the sides or in the background of the frame as his camera, ever restless, follows or anticipates the action. But he returns, time and again, to close-ups of his star’s face for long stretches of the movie’s running time. Her face is his idée fixe and a recurring reminder that, even if Gravity finds Cuarón in effects-laden blockbuster territory, he’s never content to just be a great visual stylist. He’s grasping for something meaningful, emotional, and human. For the first time, it may elude him, but there's still something beautiful in the effort.