Alfonso Cuaron was part of a triumvirate of exciting directors (along with Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) who came out of Mexico at the turn of this century. His 2001 Y Tu Mama Tambien was a combination road trip/coming of age movie that was heart-felt and powerful. He then worked magic for Harry Potter with his direction of The Prisoner of Azkaban, the best movie of the series. Two years later Cuaron adapted P.D. James’ dystopian novel The Children of Men. It was one of the best movies of that year, but it was sabotaged by a horrible trailer so few people saw it. Now he’s back with another Oscar-caliber film that has, thankfully, received the audience it deserves.
Gravity was co-written by Cuaron with his son Jonas, along with uncredited help from George Clooney. (If you have an actor in your film who’s received multiple Oscar nominations as a screenwriter, you might as well use him!) The film is a tight rollercoaster thrill-ride, lasting barely an hour and a half, but each of those minutes is jam-packed with action and with meaning.
In spite of its outer space setting, it is a story grounded in the age-old question of how do humans survive against huge odds. It’s also unusual in that it’s essentially a solo performance carried by Sandra Bullock, a rarity for a major film. About the only other studio film to do this is the central portion of Cast Away, though the opening and ending were filled with people. Strangely enough, Robert Redford’s current film All Is Lost is another solo effort, though it’s an independent production, made for a tenth of the cost of the special effects-filled Gravity.
Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical doctor who went into the space program as a mission specialist and is part of a shuttle mission to repair part of the Hubble Space Telescope. While she works on the satellite, tethered to the cargo bay of the shuttle, senior astronaut Matt Kowalski is enjoying his final space walk before retirement. The voice of Mission Control (Ed Harris, in a wonderful bit of vocal casting) comes on to alert the crew to a situation where the Russians have attempted to shoot down an old satellite with a missile. At first there’s no concern, but a few minutes later Mission Control’s back on the line. The debris from the satellite’s destruction has started a chain reaction and is wiping out other satellites. Before the astronauts can return to the shuttle, the debris field arrives and destroys the ship as well as the Hubble. Stone and Kowalski manage to survive, but now they’re low on oxygen and they have no way home. Their only hope is to reach the International Space Station orbiting a hundred kilometers away, before the debris field completes another orbit of the earth and destroys it.
Cuaron and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki created several stunning shots for The Children of Men, including one where the camera did 360 degree pans within a crowded car. With Gravity the two men have upped the ante as the camera seems to float and spin in weightlessness through scenes that last for minutes without a cut. The effect is stunning, and is almost as realistic as the weightless sequences in Apollo 13 that were actually filmed in zero gravity conditions.
There’s been criticism of the film from astrophysicists who point out the orbital mechanics of the story simply wouldn’t work. We’re also in a time when the shuttle has been retired. That’s all well and true, but movies have always worked because of the suspension of disbelief. You know you’re watching actors performing on sets (or green screens, with the digital effects available these days) and if they do their job well you’re caught up in the story and accept it as its own reality. Gravity more than justifies that suspension of disbelief. Along with its record-breaking box office, Gravity deserves Oscar nominations for Cuaron, Bullock and Lubezki, as well as in many of the technical categories.
One powerful message of the film is that survival is not so much a question of courage as it is stamina. Courage can actually lie in the choice not to survive. It’s a lesson that can be applied down here on Earth. There is more than one form of gravity at work in this film.