Alfonso Cuaron is the kind of director who can inspire strong emotions- positive and negative- from audiences, simply by being attached to a film. The Mexican director has been nominated for three Oscars and has brought home a total of 29 awards for films as different as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the dystopian Children of Men and the steamy Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Cuaron’s unique visual style and dark humor have helped cement him a place of honor among many American film audiences, and his skills have matured with each successive film. The style is not for everyone, though, and plenty of viewers find themselves feeling exhausted or disoriented by the ambitious storytelling.
All of which makes it supremely interesting that Cuaron’s newest film, Gravity, has been heralded as “the best space film ever done” by James Cameron, and Guillermo del Toro called it “completely mind-blowing.” With praise like that from two huge names in Hollywood, it’s clear that Gravity is something special– but what can movie audiences really expect from it?
What is Gravity?
If you haven’t heard about the movie previously, don’t worry: You don’t know much less about it than the rest of us. The film’s official trailer does little to reveal much of the plot. Instead, it simply features one long, uncomfortably tense scene between a pair of astronauts – played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney – as they attempt to make a repair outside of a spaceship. A piece of floating debris hits Bullock, sending her reeling, and she tumbles away into space.
Until recently, that’s basically everything audiences knew about the film.
Now that Gravity has hit film festivals and has been released in theaters, everyone who watches it seems to have only great things to say, but details of the story are still maddeningly vague. From the film’s IMDB page, we know that the film is a survival story set in space, and it’s billed as a techno-thriller. And from what we’ve seen of the trailer and reviews from Cameron and other industry giants, it’s quite clear that Cuaron’s pulled out all the stops to make this a visually stunning cinematic event.
A Technological Feat
Gravity, which should have been an easy story to film, reportedly took Cuaron four and a half years to make because it demanded technology that did not yet exist. Instead, his team had to innovate new solutions to create the effects.
When watching the trailer, the graphics are so beautifully rendered that the viewer is completely oblivious to how the film was made: with two actors suspended in harnesses inside a 9 by 9 foot chroma-keyed cube. From a technical perspective, then, it’s no wonder that other filmmakers are praising the film as a marvel of cinematography; Cuaron’s managed to accomplish something that no other space movie has done successfully, and it may come to be held up in film school as a hallmark of the genre.
Most space films spend a rather limited amount of time actually in space. They take place instead on the deck of a spaceship or surface of a planet, with the occasional CGI or stock footage establishing shot of the universe to put things in perspective. By and large, these movies were constrained by the limitations of a sound stage and what type of sets could be built. The real vastness of space is something the audience must accept and remember but never really see in its full glory.
Cuaron’s film doesn’t seem to do that. Gravity appears to be giving us more space than ever. His signature long takes and wide-angle shots are meant to portray both the enormity of space and the intimacy of personal stories, and the reviews so far suggest that he’s perfectly achieved this goal. Undoubtedly, we’ll see something new in Gravity, and that newness certainly earns it some of the praise it’s received so far.
Story-wise, the film seems to be breaking some new ground as well. The overwhelming majority of space stories have been science fiction tales that use space travel metaphorically or as a backdrop for another type of story. Gravity seems to be a more realistic tale, a film that works within the framework of existing space technology. It appears to be taking the well-worn path of the survival story and planting it in a new atmosphere. If it can deliver something new to the genre, it might be truly interesting.
Will it live up to its hype? Go see it and decide for yourself. Though it may be both technically proficient and visually stunning, its strength will ultimately lie in the quality of its plot and performances. If the story can carry its visuals and provide a framework for all of Gravity‘s innovations, Cuaron’s movie might just earn a position alongside the other great space dramas of all time.