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by Eric Kohn
September 1, 2013 2:04 PM
7 Comments
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Telluride Film Festival Review: Is Alfonso Cuarón's 'Gravity' A New Kind of Cinema?

"Gravity."

There's an implicit irony to the title of "Gravity," director Alfonso Cuarón's lost-in-space odyssey, because gravity rarely enters into the equation. Almost entirely shot in a stunningly realistic but entirely digital representation of space, the movie might be the most spectacular two-hander of all time. Working from a script co-written with his son Jonás, Cuarón follows astronauts Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) on a space shuttle mission gone wrong and sticks with them as they drift around the planet in peril for 93 minutes.

The virtual camera practically never stops moving in several directions, aping the weightlessness afflicting the characters with simultaneously hypnotic and disorienting results. Four years in production, "Gravity" presents an artificial world that could only have been made today, and provides a fantastic showcase of new possibilities.

Cuarón has long explored the power of long, unbroken takes: "Children of Men" imbued battle scenes and car crashes with horrific realism, while "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" practically spent more time constructing its wizardly universe than forwarding the plot. His use of the approach here, however, takes on entirely new dimensions. In the roughly 13 minute opening shot, the shuttle slowly drifts into view while the planet pokes into the side of the frame, while the frame increasingly magnifies the performers, swirling about them as they tinker with the Hubble Telescope and trade barbs with mission control down below. While Matt enjoys a freedom of movement allowed by his jetpack, Ryan and a third colleague remain tethered to the vehicle, but their stability doesn't last long: The sudden announcement that shattered satellite debris is heading their way forces the trio into panic mode, but given little time to react, they're abruptly assaulted by speeding detritus and severed from their craft.

Cuarón doesn't cut once, creating the first of many immersions into the empty surroundings and the immediate sense that you're watching a historic achievement. Along with capturing the vividness of the accident, he roots it in human experience, as the camera gradually gets closer to his subjects and eventually makes its way into one of their helmets. Melting the CGI imagery into a physical intimacy with his subjects, Cuarón establishes a delicate balance largely in place for the frantic remainder of the movie.

While some cinematographers have voiced trepidation over the role of their craft in the context of such heavily digitized techniques -- most recently, Christopher Doyle spoke out against "Life of Pi" winning an Oscar for Best Cinematography -- "Gravity" director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki clearly relishes the opportunity to play with new tools. Reflecting the same weightless of its subjects, the camera possesses the free-roaming quality of space itself. At times, it zips along with its subjects before hanging back and watching them transform into blinking lights against the unforgiving darkness, as if a traveling astrophotographer simply happened upon the dramas of the NASA crew.

The accomplishments of "Gravity" arrive right on schedule, representing the culmination of several years worth of purely green screen storytelling in Hollywood productions that include "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" as well as Zack Snyder's Spartan battlefields in "300." But while those movies and several others treated their fabricated worlds with traditional filmmaking techniques, "Gravity" uses them in the service of a full-on ride.

7 Comments

  • TheGhostofBelleStarr | October 3, 2013 2:00 AMReply

    oh brother, the trailer looks REALLY stupid. I for one can't stand Bullock's acting nor even the sound of her voice so would be torture...also I'll have to pass on this one since I refuse to support any"work" of George Clooney who being a multimillionaire supports the Socialist/Marxist agenda of Obama. Serfdom for you and me is A OK in Clooney's book while he and the rest of Hollywood rich and elite are far removed from it. I'll wait for it to come to TV.

  • bongokillerclown | September 2, 2013 4:48 PMReply

    not a big fan of mainstream "movie stars' but the premise is worth watching...the cinematography sounds fascinating.

  • roland | September 2, 2013 1:06 PMReply

    Great review. Cant wait to see it. Thanks

  • Neil | September 2, 2013 12:49 PMReply

    Funny how Angelina turned this down but accepted roles in such gems as Wanted, Salt and The Tourists. Such is the nature of the business I guess, sigh....

  • A reader like any other | September 1, 2013 8:37 PMReply

    It would be very nice if you wouldn't tell so much about the plot of the film. I thought this was an analysis about the way of Cuaron's making films, not a list of Gravity screenplay's plot points. Thank you.

  • Eric | September 2, 2013 4:32 PM

    It's almost impossible these days to engage with a movies and not face this sort of complaint. If you're really that sensitive about spoilers, it might be best to avoid reviews entirely until you see the films in question. But in my defense, I've grown more and more sensitive about the idea of spoilers in recent years and tend to avoid revealing any major plot points that aren't already made clear in existing data about a film (trailers, IMDb summary, etc.). There's a lot more that happens in GRAVITY that I did not disclose here, I promise.

  • Mirvish | September 1, 2013 8:01 PMReply

    Can't wait to see it, but from what I understand the real technical wizardry isn't in green screen per se, as much as the motion control robots to which the actors, sets and cameras are strapped. It's a San Francisco company that modifies industrial car assembly robots tha worked with Cuaron. In other words, I think it does Cuaronand his team a slight disservice to attribute the production to "new" technology as much as real artistic and technical genius in the use of and modification of existing technology. Hats off to all involved!