Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity: my review/analysis

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Like most of my reviews that are basically analysis’s of the film, THIS IS A SPOILER ALERT! A SPOILER ALERT!  DANGER, WIL ROBINSON! My analysis is based mostly on my own readings and my own film critical viewing background. 

If you want reasons you should see Gravity without a spoiler alert, I will tell you now that I LOVED GRAVITY, but I had problems with it, which are illustrated below. If you want a preliminary review without spoilers go here or here

Do go see Gravity in the theatre if you can. Watch the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiTiKOy59o4

Once again there are spoilers down below due to my analytic nature, so go see the film and then come back to this page and see if you agree or not. SPOILERS BELOW. 

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I got really excited when I read this: http://www.theverge.com/2013/7/21/4542974/gravity-director-alfonso-cuaron-defends-casting-sandra-bullock-female-lead-sci-fi

Readers of this blog can see why:  http://jacquelinevalencia.com/tag/reworking-with-women/

As part of some conceptual work, I’ve been taken excerpts from scripts with male lead roles and changed their gender. It’s been an interesting experiment and I’m still reworking some and gathering info on reader’s reactions to them.

What first struck me about Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity before even seeing Gravity was the fact that there was a possibility of an actress taking over the lead role in a space flick. For that, I am satisfied and Sandra Bullock is to be commended for her performance in it (although I think they could have utilized her better and will attempt to explain why below).

Bio-mechanical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first space mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who is on his last command mission. While doing their last space walk to repair the Hubble telescope, a Russian anti-satellite test causes space debris to imperil the mission. The team is asked to abort, it gets lambasted with the catastrophic detritus, hurtling the pair into a perilous situation.

Gravity is a technically brilliant disaster movie. I am impressed by directors who envision not just scenes, but entire films in their heads, without regard to how they can techically make them happen.

“I have to say that I was a bit naïve; I thought making the film would be a lot simpler,” Cuarón says. “Yes, I knew it would require a certain amount of tricks, but it was not until we started trying conventional techniques that I realized in order to do the film the way I wanted to do it, we were going to have to create something entirely new.” – Alfonso Cuarón

Cuarón has accomplished quite a feat by visualizing long tracking shots set in space and making them a cinematic reality. We don’t just see the illusion of a long tracking shot, but the combination of depth of frame perspectives creating a unique “possible” 4th wall view. As the camera pans back from a two dimensional view of earth, Stone and Hubble are revealed. Earth becomes a background, Stone is our centrepiece until Kowalski appears floating by stealing our focus from Stone and places the audience back in space again. Moments later, the shuttle becomes the background while Kowalski continues to charge our view becoming bigger and smaller as he space walks. Plopping himself next to Stone, the pair frames Hubble making it the focus while Earth continues to be the backdrop. The viewer witnesses the astronauts interactions, listens in as Mission Control interjects, and we are placed back in our seats in the theatre, hovering over the impending action: a bolt escapes Stone’s hands, Kowalski rescues it right at the tip of the audiences’s noses: we are cast back in  three dimensional space as part of the scene. This technique repeats itself throughout the film: from beyond the calm until disaster strikes where we are thrown from viewer to participant. Cuarón places the viewer into a point of view perspective from inside Stone’s helmet, then cutaways to space or Kowalski, and then back to extreme close ups of Stone’s reactions.

It’s something akin to an IMAX science centre 3-D presentation with thrills and drama looming around the viewer. It’s a sui generis in film techniques to be able to make the audience part of the action in a  very attenuated way: generating dynamic white-knuckle environments while still reassuring the filmmaker’s audience that they are merely spectators to an event. If cinema is the visual materializer of dreams, then to wake up is to see the magic within its emotional evocations. Cuarón takes the idea of the lucid dream in space and plays with it rather well here. I will reiterate though that Gravity will merit a few more re-watchings for me to declare it anything more than just a stepping stone in filmmaking (I’ve seen it two times).

I’ve read many opinions comparing it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 . From my view, I can see how technologically it may start something new in blockbuster film. Using a combination of art film techniques (depth of view, Hitchcock-esque long tracking shots, etc.), with big budget frameworks in a film is not a revolutionary action. You can see art house in blockbuster films such as Inception or Titanic. However, utilizing the same suspense genre art shots in Titanic doesn’t make it new Psycho. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 was visionary and stands alone as one of the best science fiction films out there because Kubrick envisioned a new way of looking at science fiction: as a prophetically introspective possibility. Philosophically, Kubrick took Nietzschean views of the superman, mixed them with Eastern philosophies, and molded them into a otherworldly story set in our solar system. In Gravity, Cuarón  has taken the story of a space disaster and used it to chronicle one person’s desperate struggle to get back home. There’s no philosophy here and there’s nothing grandiose in its premise.  Stone’s isolation from those that can save her down at Mission Control is a very palpable situation. Without her connections to Earth she is entirely left to her own devices to survive.

Is this then basis for comparison to 2001: as a simpler version of 2001? Not even close; the similarities stop with both subjects being astronauts. . Although he is a big fan of Kubrick, Cuarón hasn’t made Kubrick a focus. What Cuarón presents here is a portrait of disconnect, loss, fleeting interactions with others, and the meanings one can find within the short moments in the present. Stone grieves the loss of a child. Kowalski and the Earth (home) provide an anchor (where she has none) for her to hold on to. She goes from endeavouring to subsist, to suicidal defeat, and then to a full blown yearning to fully live again. Kubrick’s 2001 didn’t have these themes and had way more symbolically (in its colour schemes, visual metaphors and film processes), than Gravity did from beginning to end. The story in Gravity is in its continual action which makes it more of a modern redemptive spectacle instead of a symbolic tale; which is quite alright though. Not everything we enjoy and marvel at can be both ingenious in technique and in narrative, but I digress.

The story: I had issues here with the film. Casting a female lead for this film was ballsy enough of Cuarón and I am so glad he fought against the grain for it. My issues lie with the female empowering trope placed by popular culture which the director might have subconsciously fallen for: Stone only finds meaning in her life in remembrance of her lost child. I think this part of the plot could have been thrown out. She could have found value in her life’s work as a bio-mechanical engineer, or to have a life outside of work, for instance. If it had been Kowalski in her shoes, he would have wanted to get back home because he just wanted to. His observations of the things back home from space, made him think about how small he was in comparison. He sacrifices his life for Stone because he inherently believes in living, his last moments are filled with meaningful views of his place in space. Stone’s character is someone who has gone through thorough training to get to be in NASA, yet we don’t see her acknowledge her awareness of her unique situation. She’s a person in space! Maybe this fact could have given her a purpose to pause, but instead Cuaron goes for the easy route, that familiar female trope: she has to be a mother for her to have meaning in her own world. This is not a small issue; it’s a rather grand issue for female heroines’ future in film: one that needs to be acknowledged, discussed, and remedied.

(This isn’t just the mothering trope, but the parenting trope that storytelling has fallen into. If Kowalski had been the focus, I would have pointed out how it would have been more of a red herring for the plot. Humans find meaning in their lives beyond the need to procreate and to connect besides romance. If we are to forecast a future of true equality, we must begin to think of ourselves as varied individuals and not just these traditional goals or needs from family and marriage. Not everyone aims to be a parent or to be married and there’s nothing wrong with striving for anything but either.)

There’s a scene where Stone connects with a Chinese man on Earth. There’s a huge language barrier, but they manage to exchange names. She tries desperately to connect to him more. This was another way Cuarón could have established Stone’s agency for survival. Instead, as she listens to the man sing a lullaby to his child, it’s then that she gives up and prepares to die. She can’t live without her motherly connection. It’s only until the spectre of Kowalski appears to reason her out of suicide that she wake up: she must continue on for the sake of her lost (her child), redeeming her in the eyes of the audience, and opening up a continuation to her narrative. Understanding that these moments are imparted within the span of a just few minutes (suicide, stay alive, redemption through her need to live on for her child), thus making Stone’s “awakening” feel quick, empty, and hastily tacked on.

The Kubrick reference where Stone throws off her spacesuit (which in reality would not find her in her underwear, but a rather involved inner suit of wires and tubes), floating like the giant space embryo from 2001, feels manipulatively placed. It is by far not a subtle image created here and one that I can’t imagine would play off well if Kowalski had been in her shoes. Cuarón is excellent at making one forget the magic used to create a movie, since it’s palpably felt in its realism. Unfortunately, what he does best is left to the film’s technical aspects and not utilized in fulfilling the true potential in its story.

It’s almost as if the film could have been more if it had more silence in it (out of the silence it already has which is awesome).  Stone could have been an astronaut doing whatever was in her power to get back to Earth (with no mention of children or possible romance), instead of the suicidal mother finding meaning in her child. Her disconnect with the grand world beyond her helmet’s view would have touched us all by it’s universal message. The grieving parent is an overused trope. I would be the first one to acknowledge Gravity as a groundbreaking film if this were the case. Instead, it is a thrill inducing, tear inducing, roller coaster and not the masterpiece that most have declared it to be. It’s not a flawless film and I’m not about to throw those flaws out the window without acknowledge the great spectacle of it.

I will acknowledge that Cuarón wasn’t afraid of making Stone’s character a bit flighty and spastic as opposed to going the other extreme: making her more manly in her reactions. Bullock’s delivery was genuine and something unique to both the actress and her previous portrayal of characters. She’s in charge, but still fallible, like any other human might be in her circumstances. I’m also not going to say the film should be discounted because of the faults I found in it. It was a great film to watch.

I would say Children of Men was superior, but Cuarón did have the story aiding device of a book to follow in making its story. Y Tu Mama Tambien is far more groundbreaking story-wise and I wish more people would go back and see that film and compare its narrative progression to Gravity’s. Cuarón  is incredibly skilled, but DaVinci didn’t paint the Mona Lisa every time either (not to say his other works weren’t masterpieces. Everything stands alone with muted tones or excelled brilliance in its palettes).

My favourite part of Gravity though, besides the parts where I found myself cringing in delight my seat, was when she finally arrives on land to be reborn from out of the sea, spilling herself onto the brilliant red and green masses of Earth. There’s something Joycean in that mermaid with legs symbolism there: a human taking on a new form with newly found legs. Stone teeters, but eventually stands up strong out of her trauma, her head towards the horizon, and everything is worth living again.

See? There is meaning there for her and it could have been unsaid; left to the audience’s imagination, that fourth wall view Cuarón had been hinting at could have been given a life of its own within the audience’s mind. The audience is both naive watcher and intelligent in that naivety; an empowering set up all its own. There is continuation beyond cinematic tropes, but it its too late for the audience to grasp it as the word Gravity signals the film’s end, so does the audience’s power to enlighten within.

I’m incredibly happy the film is doing so well in the box office because the world needs more action films with female leads; especially ones that don’t play into a stereotypical female plot development (Gravity may have casted a female lead in a non-traditional role, but still confined her within thata traditional female mother trope).

Sandra Bullock, I didn’t appreciate your acting before this film (except for your work in Demolition Man), but I do now.  I will give your other works a chance again just to see the potential you could have had beyond the confines of Gravity. Kudos also goes out to Steven Price’s personal evolution in soundtrack work. Good stuff overall, Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón.

Please do it again.

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4 thoughts on “Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity: my review/analysis

  1. Excellent analysis! I wish I could have made such acute insights into technique after I left, I was mostly just in awe. I disagree about the necessity of the backstory, however – I don’t believe it plays on tropes/stereotypes/sexism as *much* (though that is likely going to be there in a large production), and it makes the ending you so wonderfully describe richer. That ties in, the rebirth/evolution imagery, to the loss of a child — a child that died from a fall to earth. Really great piece!

  2. Wow you totally missed the point of this film, to suggest that the part about Ryan Stones daughter is left out would be to undermine the whole heart of the film. Gravity isn’t about space at all but about her grief after her daughters death, its metaphorical.

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