127 Hours, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alfonso Cuaron, Apollo 13, astronaut, Children of Men, Das Boot, David Cronenberg, Ed Harris, George Clooney, Goodfellas, Gravity, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, Robert Altman, Sandra Bullock, satellite, Scanners, space, Stanley Kubrick, T2, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The King's Speech, The Player, Tom Hooper, Touch of Evil
Children of Men features two distinct, harrowing scenes which continue unbroken, for several minutes, through all manner of chaos and revolt. Complicated, long-take shots have been a part of Hollywood for decades, from the gripping opening of Touch of Evil and it’s homage in The Player, to the intoxicating, serpentine VIP entrance in Goodfellas. Often, these scenes serve dual purposes (in varying ratios) which are to introduce or expand upon a key element of the plot in a manner where the style and execution chosen enhance the impact of this reveal, as well as satisfying an urge on the filmmakers part to design and then accomplish a feat despite this (often times superfluous) obstacle.
It can (and has) been argued that these scenes, in particular Mr. Cuaron’s, the director of Children of Men, are needlessly technical and actually, despite their apparent “realism” by not featuring a break signified by a cut-scene, deflate the tension because the audience is more transfixed by wondering how what they’re seeing has been accomplished, as opposed to how this sequence benefits the movie. While it is probably difficult for Cuaron or Scorsese or Welles to deny or have denied that an element of ego is involved in such bravura tactics, I’m of the personal opinion that I would prefer to see a master director push the envelope and challenge themselves, and the audience, with something that might scream of braggadocio. I would happily endure the occasional playful exercise from someone with command of their skill set rather than worry about offending the thin sensibilities of a populist movie-going public who might be alienated by such choices. The key word in the preceding statement, however, is “occasional”. Scorsese has always had a lively, wandering camera capable of super-close ups and dolly zooms, but he deploys those methods in the appropriate quantities, careful not to inundate his audience with creativity for creativity’s sake. The same applies to the Copa Cabana steadicam in Goodfellas – Karen is falling in love with Henry, and the doe-eyed bliss that defines her and Henry’s steady march through hallways and kitchens is buttressed by this choice of shot; the audience is swept up right along with her, a wallflower observing her clandestine emergence into this foreign world.
The concern, then, if it is understood that such methods indeed can serve an important, if not vital, narrative purpose is, like any good thing, not to overdo. When I first heard about Cuaron’s follow up to Children of Men, Gravity, and heard the premise, that was indeed my first concern. Showmanship has its place and directors from Cronenberg to Cameron are constantly enriching the directing dialogue by injecting weird, off-putting, mesmerizing and unthinkable practices into their work. Scanners is by no means a masterpiece, but a scene where a man’s head completely explodes, or one where combatants in a telepathic showdown rip off their skin, can confidently lay claim to enhancing the palette other directors will then paint from. It doesn’t feature a protagonist with a physical or mental defect, it’s not a period piece, it has absolutely nothing to do with World War II, and yet, is there any argument that in 15-20 years from now more people will still be watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day than The King’s Speech? And that is because T2, by focusing on the love of spectacle and meticulous execution of fantastic set pieces, by embracing innovation so wholeheartedly, becomes a great movie, whereas the evident strain in trying to be a great movie bogs down something like The King’s Speech. I don’t mean to rag on the latter – it’s a perfectly acceptable, well acted movie, which I feel suffers from the disconnect between its obvious aspirations towards being “considered” great and what it actually accomplishes towards arriving at that end (which is not insignificant, but doesn’t quite reach its goal).
So actually, there were two things going against Gravity in my mind as I entered the theater:
1) If it truly was the kind of SFX gimmick movie it had been suggested to be in the months prior, it could quickly degenerate into a very long 90 minutes of clinical showmanship. And while, like Scanners, those experiments can yield great results down the line – they’re seldom a great deal of fun to sit through.
2) Was Cuaron, like Tom Hooper, assigning himself a lofty aspiration to keep safe from missteps? Is the perceived weight of the undertaking enough, thus becoming somewhat casual in the execution?
A resounding “No” is the answer to both of those now ridiculous seeming concerns. After some brief text indicating the severe shifts in temperature encountered in space, and the general uninhabitable characteristics which define it, the audience meets a few floating folks working around a shuttle. In short order we’re introduced to veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and what appears to be his somewhat frustrated associate, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Their voices, friendly yet occupied, are the first bits of sound which puncture the vacuumed silence of the opening shot. Stone, a medical doctor installing what appears to be a visual recording device of her creation along a satellite, works with purpose but a bubbling anger – her six month astronaut training has prepared her for the physiology and mechanics of being in Zero-G, if not the mindful patience that develops with multiple, extended trips. Clooney, we learn, is on his final spacewalk (the old “one week til retirement” trope is trotted out here very early, though I wasn’t really bothered) and takes the time to appreciate the last glimpses of vistas he’s been privileged to witness as a member of one of the smallest brotherhoods of mankind.
This mentor-pupil tutelage is interrupted quickly, however, when word from Houston (Ed Harris, appropriately) comes that detonation by the Russians of one of their defunct spy satellites has created a debris cloud which is imminently going to impact their position. Clooney and Bullock, along with mission member Shariff (Phaldut Sharma), scramble to evade the once thought innocuous cloud and board their vessel prior to collision. Since we need a movie, this obviously doesn’t happen, and in a palpitation causing sequence, we follow the crew through all manner of directions and angles as the hulking debris rips apart their astral encampment and separates our heroes.
In one of the many pulse quickening portions of the movie, following the incident Bullock is entirely separated from Clooney, Sharma and their shuttle, hurtling end over end into, you know, everything and nothing. With communications severed and panic ratcheting northward, the audience gets what I believe is the first of a few overt yet finely done homages to the cinematic giants on whose shoulders this one stands. We see Ms. Bullock’s face – ubiquitous on screens for two plus decades – registering fear, dread, sadness, and countless other primal reactions to her predicament. The camera stays honed in on her, as the light from the celestial bodies opposite her come upon her face and then disappear, depending on her orientation at the time. The zoom steadily increases, not unlike the Star Gate sequence from 2001, as Keir Dullea is shaken about and transfixed by the etheral luminescence of his travels. Similarly, what goes from intense viewing of Bullock quickly moves beyond the dividing barrier of her helmet and brings us into her suit, where the panic and confusion register all the more intensely. It’s a subtle move, but one that is carefully calculated and expertly wielded – only 10 minutes in and we’ve had a beautiful melding of the clinical and the human.
Without spoiling too much of the next 15 or so minutes of screen time, suffice to say Bullock is brought back into contact with Clooney, operating a compressed gas thruster pack, and the two begin their survival adventure. It’s after this reunion that Gravity morphs into a blended genre type of picture, fusing the meticulous procedural aspects of survival odysseys like Das Boot and Apollo 13 with the isolationist mental anguish of 127 Hours. Clooney and Bullock allow the immense terror of their situation to register and then, with the practiced professionalism of a surgeon, go about their task.
The tasks include, but are not limited to – linking the two astronauts without getting in each other’s way, interpreting manuals and dashboards in Russian and Chinese, piloting a vessel lacking in fuel, and keeping at bay the personal demons which could derail the operation more definitely than any resource deficiency.
While there are certain areas which could have been improved upon – a script somewhat too eager to trade in cliches (tortured past, confident cowboy pro, last time on the job), an overlong denouement, a little-too-intense score – these are microscopic nits to pick in a fantastic sensory and emotional experience.
When there’s a moment featuring an astronaut decompress (physically and emotionally) and just drift in a fetal position as the camera patiently observes, it’s yet another 2001 reference the film absolutely earns. What is often times lost in spectacle movies are the people – explosions and crashes are impressive from a technical perspective, but when it’s anonymous bystanders or inessential henchmen, the enjoyment registers and then diminishes, visual fast food. Gravity is consistently aware of its protagonists as people, and each set piece obstacle doubles as an exploration of mental and emotional strain.
Since trying to describe what a movie like Gravity looks like in print is akin to conveying how delicious a cherry pie is through music, I’m going to just stop. It is playing a video game, being on a Universal Studios ride, watching a NOVA special and a summer blockbuster in one. If it were just a 90 minute wandering camera in space, it would be notable as an experiment. The fact that it succeeds so thoroughly on so many levels is to be applauded. If this constitutes showmanship for showmanship’s sake, then I will buy advance tickets for the encore.