Alfonso Cuaron’s return to cinema distills the blockbuster in to a single scene.
In reworking the form to suit his own intentions Cuaron prolongs that most celebrated element of the large-scale, mass entertainment juggernaut of the multiplex, the set-piece, in to a feature-length extravaganza that reworks the darling/bastard of the medium [delete as applicable] in to a refreshing new beast that has been deconstructed, analysed and rebuilt from the ground up. In recent years, in this age of Nolan and Marvel the tentpole picture has become increasingly complex. The days of the 90 minute-long, self-contained blockbuster seem long gone, with every big picture opening during the summer months destined to be spun off in to a franchise, or to be interwoven with a dozen other movies. It’s refreshing then, that Cuaron’s Gravity is the antithesis of that: a tightly woven, fleeting drama that has a definitive climax and occupies it’s own space (pun not intended).
It’s this simplicity that is the ingenious element of the picture. At once a bold, formalistically driven reinvention of that most well-worn side of the cinema, and yet concurrently wholly accessible to even the most casual of viewer. Formalism often equals form over function or style over substance, but that couldn’t be further from the truth here. While admittedly a little hokey when it comes to the lingering emotional side of things (motivation feels a tad unconvincing) the immediate and visceral emotional damage is raw and affecting. “Intense” is an adjective no doubt soon to be worn out by its association with this film, but that, alongside such related synonyms as “frenzied” and “energetic” are very much at home here.
Cuaron’s use of 3D and computer generated imagery is utterly convincing, and recalls the realisation that one had upon discovering that Stanley Kubrick shot 2001: A Space Odyssey before man went to the moon, in the sense that it’s difficult to comprehend the idea that this is a vision of space produced by a man who hasn’t actually ventured there. It carries with it a sense of authenticity and importance, and feels like something genuinely groundbreaking. Whether or not that will be the case remains to be seen (but we suspect that 101 poor imitations are lurking on the horizon). Earth is the film’s great constant and it’s innovative light source. The glow of the collective mankind lights the hapless stragglers stranded in the great silence, in turn encouraging a horror driven by that most ultimate of familiars. While the aesthetics of the picture impress, it is in the sound where the most primordial of feelings are attacked. A lone title of written dialogue informs the viewer that in space no one can hear you scream, quite literally. The vacuumous void of space houses no sound. Dialogue is passed via the man-made radios adorned by the astronauts, and a non-diegetic score signals the action beats, while on-screen sound is filtered through deep bass, resulting in something that is physically felt instead of heard.
Interestingly Cuaron cites a pair of diverse prison break movies as two of the key pieces of inspiration for his quiet space epic (“quiet space epic” earning both a literal and figuritive attachment here). Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped is named as one such influence (as is Andrey Konchalovskiy’s Runaway Train), and while Cuaron’s film lacks the unquestionable sense of faith and reason that the narrative of the Bresson film intertwines itself with wholly, it remains an interesting element of contextualisation. The in-the-moment emotional response that one ought feel during Gravity is akin to the stomach-in-knot adrenaline driven urgency as the Bresson movie, even if an overwrought final couple of minutes ultimate rob the Cuaron film of the sheer matter-of-fact “hurrah!” of A Man Escaped.