In his 1986 article ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’ Tom Gunning looks at the power of early cinema to ‘show something’. That is, to break the illusion of reality that would come to dominate narrative cinema to instead offer something visual for the audience to marvel at. Gravity fits within Gunning’s ‘cinema of attractions.’ It encompass both the traditions of the films by the Lumière brothers, where the marvels of the modern age were displayed on-screen, and that of Georges Méliès who provided the kind of magical illusions that were only possible through cinema.
Gravity delivers a display of modern technology that leaves the viewer breathless from the experience and marvelling at the craftsmanship behind it. The beauty and emotional engagement that comes from watching Gravity is not just due to being invested with the drama on screen, but by also being aware of how skilfully the filmmakers have constructed the spectacle.
The basic story that is present in Gravity functions as a subservient element that facilitates the visual magic of the film. As Gunning says in relation to Méliès’s 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon, ‘The story simply provides a frame upon which to string a demonstration of the magical possibilities of the cinema.’ And in keeping with the idea that the cinema of attractions breaks the illusion of reality, the narrative used in Gravity relies on recognisable tropes and archetypes.
Gravity is a survival-against-the-odds story where a disaster occurs and then one thing after the other threatens the survival of the characters. Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is an engineer on her first mission into space and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is an astronaut on his final mission. The rookie and the veteran are ‘shipwrecked’ in space where everything that could go wrong does go wrong. It sounds simplistic, but this rudimentary narrative and stock characters are designed to never overwhelm the focus of the film, which are its groundbreaking visuals.
Director Alfonso Cuarón has demonstrated a flair for visual style on his previous films, but in 2006’s narrative driven dystopian science fiction Children of Men he displays a remarkable command of special effect heavy long takes. As with Children of Men, the extended long takes in Gravity cannot conceivably have been filmed in a single take and are likely to have been created through composite elements. However, the end results are seamless and powerful, enthralling the viewer by holding tension and energy on-screen, and somehow also captivating them with the technical wizardry.
Furthermore, Cuarón creates the outer space setting with remarkable aptitude. Whether computer generated, models, sets or a combination of several visual effect techniques, all the space hardware looks tangible and moves in a way that adheres to the physics of outer space or at least maintains a plausible suspension of disbelief.
While many filmmakers in the past have applied sound effects to scenes set in space, Cuarón works brilliantly within the limitations of space not actually having any sound. Instead, the audience only hears the sounds from within the characters’ spacesuits, which creates an eerie urgency. As chaos occurs in the soundless vacuum of space, all that can be heard is the increasingly heavy breathing and panicked voices of the characters inside their suits.
Perhaps the greatest technical accomplishment is how Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use the weightless environment to its full potential. The extent to which cinema has been able to convey visual depth has always been limited, although innovators throughout cinematic history have continually found ways to convey cinema space beyond the surface of the screen by using deep focus, zooms, tracking shots and more recently 3D. However, Gravity achieves shots that truly liberate cinema from its flat surface in a way that even goes beyond some of the more recent and successful attempts at immersive 3D.
As there is no up, down, left or right in space the camera has complete freedom to travel anywhere. Elements on screen are shot from all 360 degrees and Cuarón’s artistry (or trickery) even allows the camera to go inside the helmets of the characters. In some moments it is even as if the camera has gone inside the characters’ minds to deliver astonishing point-of-view shots. Such shots give the film an emotional and thematic depth. The characters may be based on recognisable types and the narrative is straight-forward, but the combination of Bullock’s and Clooney’s acting along with the masterful visuals means that Gravity is more than just a series of thrills. The links established between the lonely and hostile space environment and the few bits of background information provided concerning the characters means that Gravity is not just about physical survival, but it is also about psychological survival.
Gravity takes the viewer into Dr Ryan Stone’s mind to deliver to the audience the same roller-coaster of emotions that she experiences, which oscillates between despair and euphoria. The music score by Steven Price also contributes to conveying the emotional journey that Stone undergoes, as well as the inclusion of one scene where the film threatens to lurch into incredulity before cleverly snapping back into place to reassure the audience that the film is not taking any narrative shortcuts.
Perhaps most impressive are comparative shots of Stone throughout the film that in one instance have her floating like an unborn child and in another scene shoots her from a low angle to show her standing tall. As well as the balletic quality that Cuarón gives to some of the objects in space, these moments of evolutionary and developmental symbolism are what best visually recall Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, an obvious comparative film to Gravity.
While 2001: A Space Odyssey contains an ambiguous, but nevertheless cynical, message about humanity’s role in the universe and lack of free will, there is something much more triumphant about Gravity. Not only is Gravity a celebration of what cinema in the current era can achieve, but it is a celebration of what humans are capable of; not as all-conquering heroes who have come to tame the final frontier of outer space, but as resourceful and resilient individuals who are wise and humble enough to fear and respect the indifference of the most hostile environment humanity has ever experienced.