I take notes. I like taking notes, and I especially love to take notes for a film review. No matter how great (or astoundingly bad) a film is, my mind wanders. Note writing keeps engaged in the film intellectually. Also, I’m a bit forgetful and fear missing a detail or theme worth mentioning in the film. I think everyone who loves movies should try this courtroom reporter approach to film viewing at least once. Among other things, it’s a brilliant form of pattern recognition. Going through my notes, here are some of the word-patterns I found. “Epic,” “long shot,” “extreme close up,” “holy s***,” “POV,” “cords,” “attachments”, “!!??” and repeating bits of gibberish fused with the word “brilliant.” Suffice to say I loved Gravity. It’s unbearable lightness will crush you.
Alfonso Cuaron’s latest film is the story of two astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, stranded in outer space. They have no space shuttle. They have no contact from mission control. It is a quest for survival in the harshest environment humanity knows. It’s a simple plot that should appeal to both casual movie goers and film nerds. When I was a kid attending space camp, one of the many lessons I learned pertained to the dangers of outer space. In the event of a disaster you just can’t hold your breath and wait patiently. Fifteen seconds of exposure is all it takes to tear your body apart. If there’s a tear in your suit, you’re done. In the event of an apocalypse the movies would have us believe that the world can get off its ass and send in the cavalry (see: Armaggedon), but space travel is still a logistical nightmare. There’s no such thing as a rescue mission. You’re on your own, simple as that.
This is where my list comes in, which refers to the technical and thematic aspects of the film. The plot is idiot proof. Uwe Boll could have made a passable film with these raw materials. In the hands of Cuaron, it’s art. An elegant case for the importance of (hard) science-fiction films and their power to move us.
Epic. In deep space everything is epic. It’s the final frontier! The very edge of man’s experience with the universe. All the longshots are epic and all the close ups are epic. I mean the word epic in two senses here. First, they are extreme. The camera is either a million miles away, distanced from the actors against a backdrop of black space and earth or the camera is in extreme close up. So much so, that it’s not enough to see our home world reflected in the helmet, Cuaron takes us inside the helmet. We become Bullock’s Ryan. We feel her claustrophobia, trapped in a tiny, tiny suit spinning through the immensity of a cold, directionless universe. Second, they are grandiose, imbued with the power of a master storyteller plying his craft against a backdrop of outer space. The opening shot is an excellent example of this. It’s a long (yes, epic), slow, spiraling zoom from an extreme long shot of earth to a tight close-up of Ryan working on a satellite. The shot must last several minutes as the first cut doesn’t happen until Ryan is sent careening into space.
This isn’t only a film about technical mastery. It’s a film of spiritual mastery, of learning when to let go and when to hold on. Ryan has lost a child, and there are moments in film I wondered if she really wanted to live or if she would rather join her daughter. This struggle is projected externally into the film, creating good, old fashioned conflict. There are many cords in this film. Fragile tiny strings, holding the characters together but also preventing them from moving forward. The film is saying, I think, part of the journey of life is learning when to let go and when to hold on. It’s not the most sophisticated of lessons, but this is not a sophisticated film, not as we normally conceive of the word. This is film as an expression of the elegance of simplicity.
There are faults. There always are. A dream sequence may ruin the film for some, while I found the soundtrack for the final scene to be a sloppy, tribal cliche. Neither sequence is enough to damage my enjoyment of the film. Gravity is crushing, but it’s also uplifting. It’s a trial by fire that becomes a brief, intense odyssey for both Ryan and the film going audience.
Written By David Arroyo