Alfonso Cuaron is one of the most interesting directors working in mainstream (ish) Hollywood cinema right now. He came to prominence with the third Harry Potter adaptation, Prisoner of Azkaban, which was not only the first movie in the series to have some bite, but a chance for him to unleash exactly the sort of ragged edged nightmares that close friend Guillermo Del Toro also excels at. However, where Del Toro finds his horror, and fascination, in massive amounts of specificity and detail, Cuaron takes a different approach, one crystallized in his breakout movie, Children of Men.
Adapted from the PD James novel, the story centers on Theo Faron. Theo is a former activist turned bureaucrat approached by his wife, Julian Taylor, to acquire transit papers for a young woman. What Theo discovers in short order is that Julian is part of the Fishes, an immigrant rights group and that Kee, an immigrant, is pregnant. What makes her unique is that this is the first pregnancy for 18 years. What makes her dangerous is that the UK is one of the last stable nations left, and has only survived because of a right wing extremist government cracking down on the thousands of immigrants flocking to the country. Pursued by elements of the Fishes as well as government forces, Theo races to get Kee to the Human Project, a scientific team in the Azores working on curing the global infertility crisis.
It’s an extraordinary movie, not least for the central performances from Clive Owen as Theo, Julianne Moore as Julian, Claire-Hope Ashitey as Kee and a heartbreaking cameo from Michael Caine as Theo’s friend Jasper. Cuaron builds on those four central performances, as well as excellent supporting turns from Pam Ferris, Chiwetel Eijofor, Danny Huston and Charlie Hunnam to create a movie which stares the end of humanity square in the eye for it’s entire run time. He does this through vast takes, locking the camera off for minutes at a time to create long sweeping tracking shots that drag you into the action and deny the audience the luxury of distance. A flamboyant circling shot around a moving car becomes the agonizing record of a major character’s final moments, whilst a desperate attempt to jump start the same car later in the movie is unbearably tense. However, the technique is best used in this sequence;
A lesser director and scriptwriter would have had the religious awe the soldiers view the baby with as an emotional climax, a moment of catharsis that leads to the eventual healing of society. Cuaron and his fellow writers (Timothy J.Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and apparently an uncredited Clive Owen too) ere more realistic than that, with the fact hostilities break out again almost as soon as the baby is clear tells you everything you need to know about the movie’s approach to human nature. Unflinching, clear eyed, never looking away even when we’re at our absolute worst.
Or maybe, just at our most absolute. Which brings us to low-Earth orbit, and Gravity.
Reportedly the opening shot, although not actually done continuously, is designed to appear to be a single, 17-minute long take. The idea of those long takes that he excels at being used for a story about the ultimate form of isolation isn’t just fascinating, it’s honestly a little disconcerting. That last shot, of the astronaut spinning end over end, in the center of nothing but endless black is going to be chilling on a cinema screen let alone an IMAX one, and the idea of using space, negative or otherwise, and time to tell the story of what seems to be the last few hours in these people’s lives, is something that Cuaron is uniquely suited for.
What’s really got my attention though, are the hints of something deeper, such as;
-There are at least two shots in there showing Sandra Bullock’s character without a backpack. That’s where the oxygen in a spacesuit is stored and I’m curious as to whether or not that’s simply an unfinished shot, or if she has to take the pack off at one point.
-There’s what seems to be an orange and white cloth or inflatable structure on the space station. It looks like it could be a flag, but there’s also a hint of structure to it as though it were an inflatable module of some kind.
-There are two shots in there of a woman in a Russian spacesuit. It’s dark rather than white and they go by too fast to see if it’s Bullock’s character but there definitely seems to be something different about the suit. As an aside, my spaceflight geek is positively giddy about the fact the technology looks right. The space station clearly has a Soyuz lifeboat (Maybe that’s where they got the suit?), the shuttle looks right, the suits look right. Everything looks contemporary which, in manned spaceflight, means everything looks a little dated.
To say nothing of the unanswered questions; what causes the catastrophic failure not only of the shuttle, but the space station? Is there going to be an in movie explanation for the space shuttle (Which has now been mothballed) being put back into use? What sort of work are the astronauts carrying out? What consequences does the station falling have for the world below? There’s the potential for Cuaron to tell a massive story using just two people, to tell a story of humanity at its most absolute, on a massive canvas. Gravity‘s released in October meaning I should have enough of a run up to see it in IMAX without the vertigo being too bad.