The Films of 2013: Gravity

I’ve long been a fan of Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron: he’s made two of this century’s best films, the searing erotic drama Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002) and the beautifully choreographed dystopian thriller Children of Men (2006).  In both of these, Cuaron has shown off his ability to craft long takes of remarkable intricacy; watching Children of Men, I often found myself holding my breath, not only because its chase sequences were so suspenseful but also because they were so meticulously composed.  So, needless to say, I’ve been looking forward to Gravity, Cuaron’s latest, since I first heard about it several years ago.  The word was that this was Cuaron’s most ambitious project yet, a space drama that reportedly contained fewer than one hundred single shots, the first of which was said to run some twenty minutes.  It turns out that while those rumors weren’t exactly true (the opening shot is a good deal shorter than twenty minutes, though it’s still a stunner), and while Gravity may not number among Cuaron’s masterpieces (for all its technical wizardry, it feels somewhat slight by comparison with his earlier work), it’s certain to be one of this year’s most sensational and best made films. 

The singular pleasure of Gravity lies in the balletic movements of Cuaron’s actors (Sandra Bullock chief among them) and the endlessly roving camera that floats and swoops around them as they drift weightlessly through outer space.  Cuaron’s use of 3D is also remarkably intuitive, even elegant; the effects rarely feel gimmicky or cheap in the way that they often do in other films.  As Gravity hurtles toward its conclusion, the editing begins to feel less controlled, and the shots get shorter and choppier; but whenever Cuaron gets a chance to build set pieces around single shots that he can unfurl with minimal cutting, the film is exhilarating.

Some critics have complained that the film’s only weakness may be its shoe-horning in an unnecessary and sentimental backstory for Bullock’s character.  The flaws in the writing didn’t bother me much, mainly because I was content to enjoy Gravity as a dazzling technical exercise and a genuinely nerve-jangling action thriller.  If there is a weakness to the film, it may be that Cuaron’s subject matter—his decision to make a space movie—risks leaving us somewhat cold.  I don’t think that this genre is a good fit for Cuaron, whose best films are sensual, fecund, and visually dense.  As striking as some of Gravity’s images may be, Cuaron is at his best when his camera is able to probe lusher, more organic environments than the control room of a space station.  I similarly worry that an over-reliance on special effects might end up crushing his style, which needs to be able to explore the kinds of spaces that aren’t constructed in post-production.  Gravity is about as good as a big-budget Hollywood spectacle can get, but I hope that Cuaron’s next film finds him exercising his formidable talents back on Earth.   

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