For sheer escapist, immersive, jaw-dropping, heart-pounding survival story-telling, filmmaking doesn’t get much more fluid, visceral or masterful that Alfonso Cuarón’s lambent and extraordinary new film “Gravity”. This is the sort of film that will be drooled over and analyzed for decades to come when film historians, decades or centuries hence, look back on the art medium, citing key breakthroughs that completely transformed the possibilities of what filmmaking (and its hopeful translation to film-going) can and could conceivably accomplish. “Jurassic Park” certainly belongs in that superlative list. “Citizen Kane”, for sure. “Schindler’s List”, “Blue Velvet”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “The Godfather” trilogy, “The Sound of Music”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Forrest Gump”, most Alfred Hitchcock films, many others…and now Cuarón’s masterwork. Rest assured the word fits- this is a masterpiece, through and through.
Now playing in most Philadelphia theaters, with 3D capacity or otherwise, this film grapples with the hearty, nerve-wracking basics of survival, built upon the foundation of contemporary space exploration. Oxygen. Connection. Water. Evading explosions and fire. The heroic struggles of our heroine, Dr. Ryan Stone, harken to Joseph Campbell’s insightful essay, “The Inner Reaches of Outer Space”, detailing how all mythological projection of inner collective, mindful unconscious struggles and victories now occur almost wholly in the genre of science fiction and space travel.
Though the film is an action thriller (Sandra Bullock cut her action chops with “Speed”, among others, but finds here a kind of eternal redemption for the bleak disaster of that aforementioned film’s sequel), it posits transcendent questions through calculated, beautiful placements of religious iconography. The very dependence of each country, through proximity of their space technology, argues for the end of war. Each of us needs the other, and ultimately each of us comes to recognize how much greater, more expansive and more limitless is the surrounding unknown Universe than humans or Earth. Never before in a film have I seen with such pristine precision the way outer conflicts and chaos mirror our own problematic design, or struggle to reconcile an imperfect universe, replete with tangible, life-threatening problems, to the human drive toward discovery and maintenance. Annie Dillard wrote it best in one of the essays within her work “Teaching a Stone to Talk”. To wit: "What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are not they both saying: Hello?”
You have to give Bullock credit- the film may be born of Cuarón’s genius, but it is entrusted to her, and allowed to flourish because of the raw disciplined talent Sandra brings to this role. She has come so far, in her life, as an actress; I can remember watching “The Net”, compulsively, drawn to the fierce human intelligence and vulnerability encapsulated in that film, in that role. It was like, even then, filmmakers and film fans could see Bullock was destined for greater things. She will definitely give Cate Blanchett a run for her Oscar gold. There is a particular scene with tears, weightless and floating in space as they manifest on (and then off) of Bullock’s emotive countenance……like much of this film, it was something that astounded me, for I’d never seen it before, and I doubt I’m likely to again soon.
Similarly, Cuarón’s past movies have given inklings of raw genius, sort of incubating for a time when it would explode. “A Little Princess”, “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, “Great Expectations”…even his foray into the Harry Potter franchise…each one of these films, if you watch carefully, clue you into an extraordinary chronicler of life and narration. Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón’s cinematographer of choice, harbors particularly immaculate talent. His cinematography is like a crystalline prism; the lighted palettes captured in all these films literally make one’s heart skip beats.
One image in particular remains, from “Gravity”’s smorgasbord of visual delights. Sandra Bullock rests in a fetal position, weightless in perhaps the film’s only brief respite from desperate survival struggle; you see a fetus, an adult, an astronaut, a zygote aboard within a womb, a space ship, technology, a computer. Cuarón may be suggesting birth within the universe, humans waking up in darkness. But this image also gains more significance, for “Gravity” is like a birth and advent of a New Cinema. Like any birth, it is exhilarating, frightening, and not a little miraculous.