Forces of Nature: Experiencing Cuaron’s GRAVITY

On Monday, I went to see Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity by myself. Considering how infrequently I’ve visited theaters since I’m no longer getting paid to do so, it should feel both cathartic and exciting every time. This is even my favorite time of year to see theater movies – the trailers are for upcoming Oscar films (indeed: The Counselor, Captain Phillips, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and The Monuments Men aired prior to the feature – along with some Keanu Reeves incoherence called 47 Ronin, which will probably be a terrible masterpiece) or the year’s horror fare. Mostly, I was just anxious. Gravity was bound to be a tense, emotionally vivid experience for somebody claustrophobic like me, who is in complete awe and terror of space, who as she gets older realizes (and rebels against – hello skydiving) her own impending mortality.

Bullock in Cuaron's Gravity

Sandra Bullock in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (Courtesy

As it turns out, alone may have been the best way to see Gravity. Scott Foundas wrote a piece over at Variety that claims the movie, which draws inspiration from art films of the 1920s and ’30s, might be considered a religious experience. That’s taking it a little too far, if you ask me…and after the Aurora shootings, I was known to call the theater my sanctuary, my temple. When you really think about it, though, isn’t that what you’re doing, going into a massive, darkened space to view flickering pictures by yourself? You’re deliberately removing yourself from one world and entering another; you’re atoning for your “sins” through voyeurism, or you’re taking comfort in others’ plight (for me, anyway, there’s always an element of schadenfreude). You’re worshiping larger-than-life actors, brilliantly imagined other worlds, technology that continues to develop a century after the first picture moved.

Gravity begins with an off-key orchestral forte that builds in volume until you’re not sure your ears can take it, then snaps off, leaving you alone in the dark and relative silence. (I was reminded of the original THX sound – remember that?) For an hour and thirty minutes, you’re trapped in space with Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a medical doctor who is for some reason working for NASA, and Matt Kowalski, a seasoned vet who’s looking to break the record for longest space walk. The characters are minimally developed, their arcs relatively simple and even predictable. When disaster strikes (at 90 minute intervals in film-time, hooray for suspense!), Stone and Kowalski perform exactly as you’d expect.

It’s Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography and the sheer magnitude of looking down on the earth from a position of, well, Godliness, that usher the movie into the proverbial stratosphere. Kowalski verbally acknowledges the majesty of the sun on the Ganges, while Stone ignores (and the audience marvels at) the goosebump-inducing splendor of the Aurora borealis from 350 miles up. Lubezki compares the infinitely cramped environment of a space station to the womb in one of the year’s most striking shots. We are all star stuff, after Hitman: Agent 47 2015 movie now

If I’m outside, I’m pretty much always wearing sunglasses. When I left the theater from Gravity, the sun was descending the horizon, shooting its brightest rays directly into my blinking eyes. I didn’t put on my sunglasses. I wanted to see the sun, to feel the wind, to hear the leaves crackle; I wanted to experience the autumn. The real final scene of Gravity is you, stumbling out of the darkness and into the light.

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity: don’t let go. (Courtesy DailyGrindHouse.)

Neil deGrasse Tyson playfully criticized the movie’s use of flawed science to further its necessary plot, but hey, Gravity never claimed to be SCIENCE FACT. It didn’t claim to be much at all, frankly – but it will become a bastion of the macro and micro in filmmaking. Its enormous technological feat and gorgeous visuals juxtapose neatly with its tiny cast and miniscule plotting. It’s neither an “indie” or a “blockbuster;” somehow it’s both. It is not perfect, and it is not a religious experience…but it is certainly an experience, from the opening orchestral note until you stride back out into the world. If you see it the way I did, it is something you experience alone, alongside a solitary, minimally sketched character who is but a particle literally floating in infinite space. Like we all are.

As an aside, I smiled wryly at the fact that I was paying money to see a movie about NASA and space exploration, when NASA is under constant threat by the right wing…and is currently shut down (thanks a bunch, Republicans). It does not escape me that, as Tyson noted, “we enjoy a SciFi film set in make-believe space more than we enjoy actual people set in real space.”

Not to be a hipster or anything, but I’ve been a champion of Cuaron since I was 11 years old; in A Little Princess, he brought imaginary worlds to teeming life in a way that endlessly fascinated me. My respect for him as a filmmaker continues to grow with each new film. Children of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien are nothing short of masterpieces, and Lubezki ensures Cuaron’s films are vividly hued and gorgeously shot. This is a filmmaking duo that plays in (and pretty much masters) every genre, and yet the Academy (and let’s face it, also my film classes) dismiss him repeatedly. Here’s hoping Bullock gets an Oscar nod this year, because her performance was spot-on…but frankly, I’m hoping Cuaron and Lubezki take home those statues. It’s about damn time.

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