Movies are the only popular art form in which the content determines not only whether we’ll experience a film, but how we’ll partake in that experience. Will we see it in a theater or at home or on a portable device? A term’s been coined (“platform agnostic”) that implies that going to the movies was once tantamount to going to church and that now divinity can happen on a phone. There are filmmakers aware of this shift in moviegoing culture who think it’s no good for their sense of artistry. Alfonso Cuarón is that sort of filmmaker. His movies come infrequently enough for those who love them to anticipate a new one with zealous enthusiasm. And Cuarón, being a director of enormous commercial gifts, seems to feel compelled to deliver a religious experience.
His last movie, Children of Men, was released in a time before the iPhone. It was visionary political science fiction, and Cuarón’s expanding mastery exceeded your ability to take it all in. He drowned you in his skill. What I remember about the movie’s war-zone climax is trying to duck for cover and wipe away tears at the same time. It was a religious experience that almost killed me. In the seven years since, Cuarón has clearly been considering how much bigger he could go, how to instill an appropriate sense of only-in-theaters awe. In order to achieve it, he had to leave the planet.
Gravity trades the scriptural Armageddon of Cuarón’s previous film for astronautical peril. It’s an uneven exchange. The new movie is visually bigger yet less thematically grand. It’s the tale of an American space mission gone wrong. NASA has dispatched a crew to perform space station upgrades. The repairwoman is an engineer named Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Despite six months of training and a week in space, she’s so nervous and nauseated that she can’t even appreciate the corny comedy of an unflappable lieutenant named Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who bores mission control (the voice of Ed Harris!) with silly, old stories. This is her first spacewalk and his last.
The relatively easy assignment takes a disastrous turn after a storm of Russian satellite debris comes flying at them. None of the pieces looks terribly dangerous in itself, but apparently they’re traveling with enough force to destroy the shuttle and leave Ryan spinning off into space, attached to part of a crane that detached from the rest of the ship. It’s a harrowingly beautiful image. So, too, is the debris created by the speeding junk. The shards and scraps of white do a shimmering frozen-confetti dance.
The gracefulness of both the calm and ensuing chaos of this opening passage is something to see. Ryan and Matt remain ribboned to each other, struggling to control their momentum and coordinate their movement. They hit parts of the ship. They crash into each other. It’s like watching an invisible baby use a yo-yo. Cuarón’s challenge is to give you a movie that makes sense only if it can overwhelm your senses. I couldn’t watch it on a smartphone because I’d need both hands to grip my armrest.
That first sequence was done in a single shot. Emmanuel Lubezki is the cinematographer. He also shot Children of Men, whose finale includes a three-and-a-half-minute single take. That one stopped the show. This one starts it. Gravity‘s is longer, smoother, and so much more involved that you almost fail to notice the achievement, which I’m sure is what Lubezki would (modestly) say is his goal. The movie is in such a constant state of whirring, whooshing orbit that you can’t remember to stop to breathe and wonder how Cuarón and his crew of technicians pulled this off. As a technical filmmaker, Cuarón is at his best on the go. This was especially true of his art-world rethinking of Great Expectations, the road scenes in Y Tu Mamá También, and all of The Prisoner of Azkaban, the only of the Harry Potter films to strike the exact balance of J.K. Rowling’s storybook enchantment and real-world paranoia.
Gravity never stops moving (there’s often some object hovering in the camera frame), but when things slow down you’re free to wish the human action were as emotionally stirring as the material chaos is thrilling. In conducting the action noiselessly, he adheres to the science of this scenario. But neither Ryan nor Matt can resist speaking bromidically. The score, by Steven Price, mistakes bombast for wonder. Cuarón has given Ryan an unhappy backstory. It’s meant to keep us connected to her, but we don’t need it, and neither, really, does she. The sheer will to survive the accident should be enough to keep her fighting, with Matt’s guidance, to find her way back to Earth. Her confidence is Cuarón’s. But if his movies are in some way about the pros and cons of faith (in sex, love, magic, friendship, mankind), this new movie offers a new property: guilt.
Cuarón wrote Gravity with his son Jonás. And it’s as much of a story a child wishes his parent would read to him at bedtime as it is a story a parent wants to tell about himself. Like the Rowling books, it, too, has the deceptive simplicity of something you’d read a young person before bed. Its priorities are narrower. The universe is as big as two people, though mostly one, since Clooney’s character keeps coming and going. The movie puts infinity on the head of a pin (it runs just over an hour and a half). The thematic minimalism deserves maximal projection. It is being released in 3-D. You want to see it in the most state-of-the-art movie theater you can find. Otherwise, all the fantastic visual effects and sound and camera work are for nothing.
And yet the disappointment of Gravity is that its innovations feel entirely formal. But that’s a disappointment it took two viewings to feel. The movie isn’t perfect. But it provides a perfect moviegoing experience, and that’s almost as good. The second time I went I watched a lot of the faces in the audience, and they looked just as I imagine mine did the first night I saw it: Whoa. It’s the kind of good pop moviemaking Cuarón has done even better before. These last two movies have clearly been thinking about Stanley Kubrick. Children of Men is the film that complements one Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange, and exceeds another, Full Metal Jacket. There are shots of Bullock in her helmet, spinning fetally, that evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the film eventually feels like James Cameron’s Aliens, right down to Bullock’s haircut and skivvies. Cameron is among the directors Cuarón thanks in the closing credits, and he’s as good a commercial director as Cuarón is. This, however, is minor Cuarón. It’s his The Abyss, a movie that was famously doomed by the public’s expectations. It’s one of the best Hollywood movies about marriage, but no one wanted that from the director of The Terminator.
With a really good artist who works as infrequently as Cuarón does, your expectations are sky-high. So is your inability to contain yourself. Not only do you not want the experience to end, you grow frantic. You hate to feel it slipping through your fingers. You try to scoop it up again and hold on, but it keeps falling away. You want more from this movie: Kubrick’s cosmic grandiosity, Cameron’s gusto, Cuarón’s own self-topping boundary breaking. But Cuarón doesn’t leave us with nothing. There’s the poignancy of his poetic literalism. The film gives us two very good stars in outer space. Clooney comes closer to Buzz Lightyear than you thought a living human could. His character is so coolly square that he’s discontinuing himself.
Bullock, meanwhile, is at the apogee of her Bullockness. A great deal of your enjoyment of this movie hinges on your enjoyment of the never-ending battle between her pluck and self-doubt, between will and can’t. She doesn’t have Clooney’s easy confidence (no one does). The one time Bullock tapped into it, America flocked to bear witness and Hollywood gave her an Oscar. The last shot of this movie gives you a big blast of that Bullock. Regardless of where you stand on her charisma in this movie, however, it’s inarguable that Cuarón knows what he has done by situating her and Clooney among the stars. They almost don’t need to go back to Earth. They’re already home.