I definitely fall on the enthusiastic side when it comes to this movie, though I guess that shouldn't be a shock -- it seems the battle lines seem to be drawn pretty clearly between those who have great enthusiasm for Alfonso Cuarón's previous work (I'd have voted both Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También Best Picture in their respective years, and I also think A Little Princess is a lovely family film) and those who don't. (I'm glad there's been some dissent here, though. It's way more interesting than the near-unanimous "it's perfect" raves.)
To start with, I can't remember the last time I was so viscerally affected by a film. From the movie's opening shot, I was completely held. Clooney's "I have a bad feeling about this mission," the moment when the third astronaut seems to start to float away from the ship, and Ed Harris's offhand comment about debris are all little beats that immediately establish an air of tension, creating an environment where danger feels all but inevitable. And then once the movie got going, I was in a total state of anxiety throughout -- it's hard to think of a movie where its protagonist comes within an eyelash of certain death so many times, and Cuarón's skill at crafting these breathless suspense sequences is pretty much beyond reproach.
And my god, the visuals! At some point, you almost lose track of all the technical feats being accomplished here -- the long takes that feel fully-integrated into the storytelling, the eye-popping space shuttle effects, one of the more frightening uses of 3-D in a film (that moment when Bullock is swinging around on the shuttle arm and reaches her hand out toward the audience gave me chills), even the creation of weightlessness that buoys the actors in their gravity-less environment (especially in that womb-like shot, with the umbilical cord-style rope surrounding a fetal-posed Bullock). For the last four years, the Cinematography and Visual Effects Oscars have been awarded in tandem -- I find it hard to believe this film won't make five in a row.
Watching the movie the first time, I was in such fear for Bullock's fate (and so overwhelmed by the visuals), I admit I wasn't thinking much about the film's thematic concerns. But I think the point Italiano raises is a very important one -- is there more depth to the story? I would come down on the Mister Tee side -- that the movie has a compelling subtext -- but I will admit that my take very much comes from a film school background, in which one is encouraged to find meaning in tiny details, and I wouldn't at all dismiss the opinion of anyone who didn't find such depth in seemingly minor elements of the movie. The film was bound to be compared to 2001 based on subject matter, but I felt like Gravity had a lot more in common with Woman in the Dunes, another spare narrative about characters struggling to survive -- I think that movie can be interpreted on a lot of different levels, but I could also see someone thinking that it wasn't about anything more than people trying to protect themselves from sand in a pit.
SPOILERS IN THE NEXT FEW PARAGRAPHS
Mister Tee spoke about a lot of the details I found interesting, but I'll add some other points. There's a little riff on religious themes that I think is interesting -- Bullock says that after the death of her daughter, she never learned to pray, suggesting very little belief in God or an afterlife. But then when she gets the pod working, she begins reciting what is clearly a form of prayer, sending a message to a departed comrade to send to her child. (This scene comes after she gets a helpful visit from a literal guardian angel.) The contrast is interesting, for when things are going horribly for her, God might as well not exist, but when she lucks upon an escape plan that could save her life, she's far more willing to positively embrace spirituality -- she wouldn't be the first person to have this type of relationship with faith.
There's another little detail that I thought was very relevant too. Bullock is an American onboard one of her country's shuttles, and requires both a Russian and Chinese module to get back to Earth. Obviously, these three countries have had a strong presence in space, so in practical terms it makes logical sense she'd encounter these countries' devices. But it has thematic resonance as well -- these nations have a history of conflict with one another, but far above the Earth's surface, none of those differences matter. This is also an idea reinforced visually -- during a number of shots of Earth, I tried to place exactly what part of the globe we were looking at, but I often couldn't. In the grand scheme of the universe, man-made borders are all but irrelevant. And, to tie things back to religion, it's not coincidental that Bullock looks at multiple religious-themed trinkets onboard those various countries' ships -- those religious differences, which have caused so much strife on Earth, are similarly meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
And, to further elaborate on the movie's ideas about the randomness of human life...it struck me that, for all of the awful things that happen to Bullock over the course of the movie, random dumb luck saves her life an amazing number of times. If her oxygen had been cut short just a bit longer, if she hadn't held tightly enough to the swinging door of the ship, if the rope tied around her leg had been any looser, if she ran out of breath underwater, and so on and so on, her fate would have been changed instantly and irrevocably. And yet, she gets lucky in even stranger ways, too -- who would seem more likely to survive the first debris onslaught, the astronauts inside the space shuttle, or the one flung into space without a tether? And yet...Bullock is the one to live. Clooney's character is tragically affected by the flip side of this luck -- if he hadn't gone back to his ship to search for survivors, he likely would have had enough power to make it to the Russian ship, and wouldn't have been left stranded in space. But...had this happened, with BOTH Clooney and Bullock surviving to this point, would they BOTH have been able to make it on board the Chinese satellite? Probably not, unless the Russian ship had another fire extinguisher floating around. There's something almost cosmically comic about the ludicrousness of the film's domino-style chain of events -- at one point during the end of the movie, my audience burst into laughter at the latest impediment to Bullock's survival, and I thought, that's a completely appropriate response. The universe works in ways that defy logic -- sometimes you draw the short straw, sometimes you don't. Ultimately, I don't think the movie's finale is entirely the triumph of the human spirit as it seems on the surface.
I also want to touch on one of the film's ideas on life and death. There's a moment in the movie that struck me as highly unusual, in a powerful way. When Clooney detaches himself from Bullock, and begins to drift into space, he has, essentially, committed suicide. And yet, he's still 100% alive, in a physically healthy state, with a mind that's still functional enough to help save Bullock (and crack some jokes while he's at it). I can't really recall another movie that shows a human in a state like this, and, in a minor way, it serves as a more extreme example of how all humans live, as we try to be productive in a life that we know is headed only toward death. (Bullock's character even articulates this theme in the speech about how everyone knows they're going to die, only she knows it's going to be today.)
I do think the movie has two weaknesses, which are related to one another. First, I didn't quite connect to the movie as emotionally as it wanted me to, and I think this is the reason many have found the child subplot to to be rather mawkish. I don't personally object to it as a narrative point -- as I wrote above, I think it's crucial to the film's ideas -- but I didn't feel especially moved by it either. The reason, I think, has to do with the second weakness, and that's Sandra Bullock. I don't think she's bad here -- this is a way meatier performance than the one that last brought her to the Oscars, in a stratospherically better movie -- but I also kept wondering if a more dramatically impactful actress would have allowed me to connect to the material in a deeper way. I think Bullock sells her character's terror quite well, but I don't think she brings much subtext to her role, and so I rate this more an appealing star turn than any dramatic tour de force. That being said, I don't know that it's the kind of role that even a superior actress would have soared to tremendous heights with -- the film just might not be enough of a character study for that. So, assuming she doesn't approach win contention again, I'll just be glad for however much of her bankability helped get such a cool project off the ground, and leave it at that.
On the whole, I'm quite enthused that an original script, from a director who I find hugely exciting, and focusing almost entirely around a female protagonist, was such a box office sensation this past weekend. I assume it will at least be this year's Hugo at the Oscars, really cleaning up below-the-line on the big night.
Oh, and I thought the casting of Ed Harris was a clever nod to a history of space-themed movies.