In Mexican writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2007), a science fiction drama set in a future world where humankind no longer has the ability to procreate, several elaborate long takes evolve the film from a visually impressive work to one of gut-punching bravado.
An engrossing three-and-a-half minute shot positioned inside a car captures the sudden death of a key character played by Julianne Moore, who is shot in the head by a bikie as Clive Owen hopelessly flaps about on the seat behind her.
Cuarón recently described this tremendous take as a “happy accident.” During filming, fake blood splattered on the lens. The director yelled “cut” but amid the roar of explosions and gunfire nobody heard him. The camera kept rolling and the footage was discovered in the editing room.
It’s unlikely there were many happy accidents during the making of Cuarón’s outer space-set drama Gravity.
It isn’t so much visually gut-punching as utterly gobsmacking. The film is too carefully engineered, too daring, too grand, its spatial structure too precisely shifted and manipulated, to have any of its marquee moments eventuate by chance.
Literally revolving around two characters who float in space after a disaster shatters their ship, the film took four and a half years to make and has been lingering in post-production since early 2011.
It isn’t hard to understand why. The reaction of most viewers, when dropped jaws eventually return to their upright positions, will to be wonder how on earth (or outside it) this vision was realised.
George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play the two rudderless astronauts and yes, Houston, they have a problem. Limited oxygen and no ship provide immediate occupational hazards. Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) likes to tell stories to pass the time. If he makes it home alive, he’ll have the mother of all of them to rotate on his playlist.
A 13 minute single take opening shot, which swirls around capturing the astronauts banter, talk shop and repair their ship, establishes the film as a special achievement in spatial manipulation. Froth-from-the-mouth critics have proclaimed nothing shy of a reinvention of the cinematic medium, that this is a genuinely innovative film, a space shuttle to a heretofore unknown galaxy of sensorial cinematics.
But Gravity isn’t, for the record, a game-changer, and if it was, God help us. The ebb and flow of Cuarón’s freewheeling frames — frames that spin and curl and flip and swirl, unrestrained by tripods or anything bolted to the ground — would usher in a new era of motion sickness the likes of which would make Blair Witch sufferers weep for the good old fashioned days of snot cams and runs through the forest. But awe is an understandable response to the grandiosity of Cuarón’s big, bold, beautiful pictures.
You’d have to be a fool not to comprehend the, well, gravity of them.
For a while it feels like this film is the ultimate existential drama, the world literally orbiting around characters forced to comprehend their mortality as they, and the audience, via the eye-widening backdrops of planets, stars and darkness, are reminded of their insignificance in the scheme of things, their powerlessness and vulnerability.
But Cuarón is no Camus: while Meursault in The Outsider killed an Arab on the beach because he was bothered by the sun, the characters in Gravity invest in the value of human existence. They care and empathise for things beyond themselves, which makes the film more Lion than Tin Man, gives it more heart than courage, more emotion than intellect.
And then there are those beautiful pictures.
If Gravity becomes a game-changer for anything, it ought to be for how movies that choose to embrace 3D technology choose to deploy it: not as an after-thought or a pop-out effect, or even as something integrated from the start of production, but a factor deeply considered from the get-go.
In a recent interview Cuarón spoke of how he contemplated 3D effects when writing the screenplay and integrated them in the earliest phases. “I worked with an amazing guy who is a geek for 3D who was involved in the very, very, very early days of the film designing,” he said. The screenplay’s original title was Gravity: A Space Suspense in 3D.
Nowhere is that mindset more apparent than in the film’s smallest invention. A tear drop that floats towards the viewer, taking on detailed form as it approaches our eyeballs, is a magnificent vision. It becomes planet-like in form and shape as it gets closer; a microcosm of something profound but minute, its properties equally rooted in science and emotion.
Gravity’s Australian theatrical release date: October 3, 2013.