Sitting in the dark, holding your breath throughout Alfonso Cuarón’s terrifying, beautiful “Gravity,” it can seem like the film simply spun up at you out of the void; it’s a work of such precision and simplicity that it almost feels like it came out of nowhere. But unlike, say, a sliver of space debris that glints in the distance a moment before hurtling in to wreak silent destruction on your space station, Cuarón’s hugely anticipated film (review here) not only had a gestation period of unforeseen length, but even back at concept stage it had its influences and its inspirations. So while it certainly feels unlike anything you’ve quite seen before, in realizing his singular vision, Cuarón in fact refers to and borrows from several cinematic forebears, and, after the fact, we can see not only their imprint on the finished film, but also its kinship with several other titles.
So we’ve collected ten films here: five of them have been namechecked by Cuarón directly (here and here) as inspirations for “Gravity,” and the other five are titles we chose for their thematic or tonal similarities. So whether you’re looking to get yourself in the mood for a screening this opening weekend, or you want to decompress after watching it with a DVD that occupies something of the same universe, any or all of the following ten titles can throw a new light on what will be one of your most extraordinary viewing experiences of the year.
Alfonso Cuarón’s 5
“A Man Escaped” (1956)
Well, if you’re going to namecheck a film as an inspiration, may as well make it a masterpiece. Robert Bresson’s astoundingly authentic recreation of the real-life story of a French Resistance fighter’s incarceration in a Nazi-run prison and his complex escape plan, may differ completely from “Gravity” in terms of location, time period and a hundred other surface details, but spiritually the kinship is undeniably close. Loneliness and looming despair eat away at the edges of both films; while Bullock’s Ryan Stone may be in or out of radio contact with earth, Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) is enclosed in a tiny cell with only occasional communication, via whispers through bars, a snatched word at the bathing trough or tapping through cell walls to keep him sane and socialized. And while he may be breathing real air, the environment outside his cell is fully as toxic and potentially lethal as the vacuum of space—yet Fontaine, like Dr. Stone, has to brave it in order to get home. Through whatever magnificent alchemy Bresson perfected during his career, he communicates a sense of immediacy, urgency and realism without ever stooping so low as to give us obvious emotional cues in terms of performance. It’s a pared-back, spartan, but unbelievably compelling work of genius, heightened by Bressonian hallmarks like a fascination with hands, a deep respect for character conveyed through action, the expressive use of offscreen sound and camerawork of such fluidity and grace that it occasionally stops your heart. So many of these elements were overtly embraced by Cuarón for “Gravity”—embraced, homaged and then repurposed into something new and totally different. Ordinarily to reference the great Bresson at the height of his powers would be a terrible act of hubris, but it’s mark of just how good “Gravity” is that, while it does unashamedly deal much more in thrills and shocks, it is not diminished by the comparison.
On multiple occasions, Cuarón has cited Steven Spielberg‘s “Duel” as a major inspiration for “Gravity,” and it’s easy to see why: Cuarón borrowed the rhythm of “Duel” for his film, a structure that shares less resemblance to a traditional three-act narrative than to a theme park ride like Space Mountain. Both films feature a single character, who has to overcome incredible odds to get out alive. In the case of “Duel,” that single character is a traveling salesman played by Dennis Weaver, who is menaced by an unseen trucker in a big rig behind him on the road. Since the trucker is never seen, the truck itself becomes anthropomorphic, a monster on the road ready to gobble up Weaver. Like the infinite blackness of space in “Gravity,” the unseen trucker becomes something that the audience is able to project into; both are black holes of fear. Like “Gravity,” “Duel” is awash in feelings of utter helplessness (and hopelessness); dread permeates every frame. But more importantly, they are both thrillers that actually feel like they were designed by people who regularly ride roller coasters: moments of relative calm feel pregnant with tension because you know, that mere moments later, the car will crest and plummet down another steep series of curves and tight embankments. (Rather like the reverse of Sandra Bullock‘s situation, it’s when Dennis Weaver occasionally leaves his car, that we get to feel relief that the terror might be over. But then he’s right back in it and and it all ramps up anew.) The script for “Duel” was written by Richard Matheson, a genre legend who wrote for the original “Twilight Zone” series under Rod Serling and who knew the power of a simple, provocative idea: What if you were terrorized, for no reason, on the road? Or, of course: What if you were left adrift in space?
“Runaway Train” (1985)
At first glance the histrionic acting and B-movie genre trappings of “Runaway Train” may seem to bear little resemblance to the pared-back elegance of Cuarón’s approach. But that it’s the second film the director mentioned to feature a prison break (“A Man Escaped” being the other) suddenly made us think that perhaps he partially enivsaged Dr. Stone’s desperate bid for survival more as an escape story—in which the prison she’s trapped within is the wide, wide universe and only by formulating a daring and risky plan can she hope to evade its deadly embrace. So there’s that, but more centrally, no doubt, is the kinetic narrative of “Runaway Train” once it’s actually aboard the titular brakeless train, and the inhospitality of the frozen terrain through which it hurtles. The story, based originally on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, follows two escaped convicts (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts trying to out-crazy each other) and a female railway employee (Rebecca de Mornay), the only occupants of a hijacked train after the engineer dies. Unable to stop the train, which ploughs through everything it meets always gathering speed, the trio have to work out a plan to work their way to the lead engine and empty the fuel tank, a bid partially thwarted by the very design of the locomotive itself. And it’s here that there’s perhaps the closest thematic parallel with “Gravity”: the drama is heightened by the technical, practical details of the technology and the intricate physical difficulties they present in our protagonists’ bid to survive. Sadly, with rather too much time spent on the interpersonal drama of ever-escalating noisiness of unbelievability between the three on the train, and on frequent cutaways to harried controllers shouting into their telephones, the tension of the premise is too often jettisoned in favor of melodrama, among characters who lurch and snarl from one cliché to the next. However, approach it as a high-octane, but largely daft, overacted thriller (director Andrey Konchalovski’s biggest subsequent hit would be “Tango and Cash” if that gives you any idea) and it’s enjoyable enough, if maybe not wholly deserving of the cult status it now enjoys.
“Silent Running” (1972)
While initially seen as something of a critical and commercial disappointment, “Silent Running,” directed by visual effects maestro Douglas Trumbull, has proven hugely influential in the last few years, with the filmmakers behind “Moon,” “WALL-E,” and “Oblivion” all citing the film as a big-time reference point. And when it comes to “Gravity,” it’s easy to see where Cuarón and company borrowed from it: the film features basically one human character (Bruce Dern) who charts a deadly mission through the cosmos (in a bit of visual effects derring-do originally cooked up during Trumbull’s tenure on Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001: A Space Odyssey“). Like “Gravity,” “Silent Running” was largely heralded for its visual effects, even though there’s a character study and a performance at the heart of the movie that is every bit as awe-inspiring as Sandra Bullock‘s role in “Gravity.” After orders come down that the experimental research vessel Dern is working on is to be detonated, he refuses, and charts a course further into the cosmos. Unlike Bullock in “Gravity,” Dern is fully equipped in a giant spaceship, complete with an EPCOT-like geodesic dome that houses a greenhouse with a number of vital plants and animals essential for earth’s recovery, but like “Gravity” it’s fascinating to watch someone alone amongst the stars (unless you count Dern’s robotic buddies, to whom he gradually starts assigning human names and characteristics after referring to them initially as “Drone 1,” etc.). “Gravity” and “Silent Running” also share a similar intelligence: even though they were sold as sci-fi spectacles, they’re really quite brainy. “Silent Running” was tapping into ideas about ecology and environmentalism that seem far ahead of their time, while “Gravity” presents ideas about humanity, evolution, and religion that are far more sophisticated than its “hey, isn’t space scary?” marketing roll-out would suggest. Though yes, space is damn scary too. Thankfully, Cuarón knew what to take from “Silent Running” and what to leave behind, which is why we’re not saddled with any goopy Joan Baez songs in 2013.
“Vanishing Point” (1971)
Director Richard C. Sarafian passed away last month, but his 1971 counter culture classic, “Vanishing Point” lives on, and having had its initially tepid critical response overturned in subsequent years, it now burns rubber as beautifully as ever. The minimalist high-speed road movie tells the spare story of a car delivery driver, Kowalski (Barry Newman), engaged in a breakneck, impossible bet that he can get a certain white 1970 Dodge Challenger (just a gorgeous car) all the way from Colorado to San Francisco in under 15 hours. Fueled by amphetamines that keep exhaustion at bay, he tears through small towns and desert landscapes alike, eventually attracting not just the notice of the police, but of locals listening to a popular radio DJ (Cleavon Little) who creates a kind of folk myth around Kowalski as “the last American hero.” It’s a film Cuarón directly nods to, not just by name-checking it as an influence, but even in the naming of George Clooney’s character (Matt Kowalski), and the extraordinary beauty and wide-open-space deep perspective that Sarafian and DP John A. Alonzo find in the photography is certainly echoed by Cuarón and DP Emmanuel Lubezki. But in other regards it’s a very different film—where the external resonance of “Gravity” mostly comes from reading it as a sort of ontological allegory, “Vanishing Point” feels far more political; a nihilist snapshot of a broken and uncertain America, in which the hippy hope Woodstock represented has dissipated even while the Vietnam war drags on, and in which the only real choice you have is between a slow death by submission to societal norms, or a fast, fiery premature one, in a brief blaze of glory. The sometimes breezy interludes in which Kowalski encounters people on his odyssey, including a naked girl riding a motorbike in the desert and an old man who catches snakes to barter to a local religious cult, can’t distract from the fact that ultimately it feels like a film about the end of hope, in which the freedom offered by wide open spaces and roads that lie like ribbons on the horizon, is illusory because no matter how great the distance, you can’t ever get away from yourself.
The Playlist’s 5:
“Children of Men” (2006)
A film that put us through the emotional wringer to the degree that we repaired to the nearest pub immediately afterward for a stiff brandy, Cuarón’s last film, “Children of Men” is a totally different animal from “Gravity,” and yet both are recognizably from the same authorial sensibility. While we, like everyone else, loved “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and judged “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to be by some distance the best Potter movie, nothing had quite prepared us for the sheer mastery and control of Cuarón’s adaptation of the PD James novel. A gloriously textured, philosophically compelling movie, the dystopian society it imagines, in which no woman has given birth for over 17 years, may be bleak, but the film’s fierce intelligence, even its anger, means it’s never dull. From a technical standpoint as well, we can trace frequent Cuarón DP, the great Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning, fluid work on “Gravity” to several touchpoint scenes here, from the glorious long handheld shot, played almost silently, as Theo (Clive Owen) and Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) leave the war-torn hospital clutching a certain precious bundle, to the now-famous moving car sequence that required various rigs, wings and prayers to achieve. So his and Cuarón’s fondness for long-take action, and their willingness to push back technical boundaries to achieve that vision, were already well in evidence prior to “Gravity.” But perhaps what’s most impressive to us, and what makes us admire Cuarón as much as we do is that all of this technical gimcrackery is only ever put in service of the story; he never sets the cart before the horse in that regard. While “Gravity” will and should exceed it in terms of box office receipts and mainstream success, for sheer storytelling confidence, emotional resonance and tour de force filmmaking it’s hard for us to believe that anything the director will do in future might surpass this masterpiece.
Like “Gravity,” “Moon” is a somewhat high-concept sci-fi project whose central conceit is one of deceptive simplicity. An astronaut, stationed on the moon (an all-time best Sam Rockwell, which is saying something because we love Sam Rockwell) and working for a shadowy organization that cultivates energy from the sun, makes a startling discovery right before he is scheduled to return home: after getting involved in an accident with his moon rover, he is met by a man who appears to be his exact double. Since Rockwell is the only actor to ever appear on screen (even if occasionally in duplicate), it’s kind of a one-man show like “Gravity.” And like “Gravity,” too, one of the major supporting roles is less played than it is voiced—Rockwell has a robot assistant, in a less-than-subtle nod to “Silent Running,” and the robot is voiced by Kevin Spacey. In “Gravity,” “Mission Control” is voiced by Ed Harris, in a similarly blatant nod to “Apollo 13.” Both movies tease existential notions of humanity and identity, with Rockwell unsure of his place in the universe after finding out that there’s someone (maybe more than one) just like him, while Sandra Bullock, during her space odyssey, has to come to terms with the singularity of her death; that no one will know or necessarily care too much if she drifts forever into the cold blackness. Both grapple with similar notions but in opposite ways, and both seem to have been inspired by similar material (including, of course, “Silent Running,” and ‘2001‘). While “Moon” isn’t as interested in visceral thrills as “Gravity,” and probably cost as much as George Clooney‘s trailer, it still grapples with similar thematic concerns, and even now it offers the unexpected whoosh of watching a movie that you know will be seen, at some point, as a certifiable classic.
“Open Water” (2003)
“Gravity” is not just a survival tale—it is also, especially in its first half, pretty much a horror movie, all the more frightening for the realism of the peril that threatens from all sides, but also of the despair that comes from within. And while it can’t hold a candle to the sheer, stark beauty of “Gravity” or the tumbling weightless grace of Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera, the ultra-low-budget high-concept “Open Water” may be the closest we can get to the sheer existential panic of being a human abandoned by humanity, adrift and alone with only a thin suit protecting us from the inescapable hostility of an enormous, impersonally lethal environment. It’s the simple story of a couple on holiday in the Caribbean, who resurface after a scuba dive in deep waters, to discover that the tour boat that brought them has left without them. Stranded in the middle of a featureless ocean, out of sight of any coast and in shark-infested waters, exhaustion soon sets it as they battle with one another and with jellyfish stings, dehydration and exposure, and their hope of rescue gradually wanes. The film’s threadbare budget, sketchy characterization and at times unconvincing script aside, for anyone who’s ever scared themselves while swimming in the sea with the thought, “What if I turned around now and couldn’t see the beach?” the clutch of fear at the central duo’s fate progressively becomes a death grip in the imagination. We could wish that the story and performances were as polished and precise as in Cuarón’s film, and that the filmmaking was a little more thrilling and inventive, but you can’t deny the effectiveness of the premise, nor the absolute absence of compromise in how it plays out.
“Cast Away” (2000)
In terms of a single actor being marooned for most of the movie, it doesn’t get much better than the gold standard: Robert Zemeckis‘ “Cast Away,” a big-budget blockbuster that is also weird and experimental and sort of oddly alienating. The tale of a FedEx executive (played, immaculately, by Tom Hanks) marooned on an unpopulated island after a horrific plane crash, it’s a careful character study as well as a nuanced tale of survival —both elements that are key to the success of “Gravity.” The fact that “Cast Away” takes place over a much greater length of time allowed Zemeckis and the other filmmakers some luxuries that “Gravity” can’t quite afford given its ticking clock structure, but in Sandra Bullock‘s performance there’s that same sense of longing, a survival instinct that’s beautifully coupled with moments of utter hopelessness. It’s hard not to wonder if Bullock watched Hanks’ performance as here she does achieve a similar, subtle mix of emotions even though the physicality of her performance is different by nature. The filmmaking in both films is also incredibly technical but yet allows for, in fact demands, a range of expressiveness from the actor. And lastly, though literally in a different world, the opening plane crash in “Cast Away” is very similar to what unfolds in “Gravity,” not the least because Zemeckis, like Cuarón, is so focused on the people involved in the calamity and not just things blowing up or smashing into one another. Both films have a visceral quality that is hard to shake, long after they end, and as both a technical achievement and a showcase for totally committed central performances, they’re hard to beat.
“Solaris” (1972 and 2002)
What “Gravity” shares with “Solaris” (both versions) extends far beyond its spacey sci-fi conventions. No, the connection is deeper and extends to the thematic core of “Gravity” — the idea that to progress, both as an individual human and as a species, you have to let go. “Solaris” has to do with a planet that seemingly allows the loved ones you’ve lost on earth to rematerialize in the flesh, which is somewhat unsettling, even as it acts as a kind of wish fulfillment ideal. The films have a mournful, melancholic tone that is far different to the space operas that were released around the same time (the original came out a half-decade before the first “Star Wars,” while the remake played in theaters during the height of prequel-mania). Furthermore, in both the “Solaris” films and in “Gravity,” the act of letting go isn’t just essential on a psychological level, it’s vital for survival. In order to get through the ordeal (“Solaris” has more supernatural trappings), you literally have to jettison things from your past. (Of course, George Clooney starred in the Steven Soderbergh remake of “Solaris” just as he does in “Gravity,” and there is an echo of that in Cuaron’s film). In fact, Andrei Tarkovsky described his original “Solaris” as “a drama of grief and partial recovery;” and the same could easily be said about “Gravity,” in which Bullock is fighting against the blackness of space and the blackness inside of her as she’s still reeling from her own personal demons. While “Solaris” may lack the visceral kickiness and approachability of “Gravity” it more than compensates with its knockout emotional punch; just because you’re far from earth doesn’t mean you can’t be crippled by your own terrestrial humanity.
There are some notable and obvious omissions from this list—Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is of course referenced directly in the film, but it’s such a peerless classic that if you haven’t already seen it, or don’t already know just how highly regarded it is round these parts well, there’s just no hope for you and we give up. Also, we were happy to note a nod to both Ron Howard’s finest hour “Apollo 13” (which we wrote about very recently here) and Philip Kaufman’s engrossing “The Right Stuff” in the casting of Ed Harris as the voice of mission control. More tenuously, perhaps, the claustrophobia of being trapped in a tiny space far away from any help has been evoked in other films from “Buried” all the way back to Hitchock’s “Lifeboat” (you can check out our feature on single-setting films if those comparisons appeal to you), while if you’re looking for an even more esoteric and fim-snobby connection, just check out the use of camera movement and reflection in Max Ophuls’ “The Earrings of Madame De….” And we don’t think we’re giving too much away when we say that two upcoming films are in many ways waterlogged counterparts to “Gravity”—Paul Greengrass‘ “Captain Phillips” (review here) which opens next week and JC Chandor‘s “All is Lost” (review here) which opens the week after. These are just a few of the titles that occurred to us thinking back—let us know what others “Gravity” stirs up for you and we’ll be sure to keep them in mind the next time we see it. Because there will be a next time—the kids may go shoeless to school, but this month’s paycheck is going on 3D IMAX surcharges. — Jessica Kiang and Drew Taylor