I’m going to tell you something very important.
As much as entrenched intellectuals like me like to joke about how certain mainstream movies are such crap that each and every person involved must not have given a second thought to what they were doing, this has never—not once—been the case. Take, for instance, the live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a movie that will rightly be tormented forever in the ninth circle of Cinema Hell. As wretched a project as it was, I guarantee you that plenty of crew members were absolutely dedicated to making that production the best film it could be. Blame for the film lies with its leadership and its complete lack of vision. The Last Airbender was terrible not because of its general crew, but because the people in charge, especially director M. Night Shyamalan, did not care about what they produced. This is what depresses me about mainstream cinema more than anything; more than the fear of innovation, more than the rejection of narrative, it upsets me most that men and women in charge of production seem to forgo collaborating with the incredible talent around them.
In this modern climate of apathy, Gravity has appeared as a godsend. Directed by the brilliant Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity is a testament to what the combined effort and passion of countless talented individuals can accomplish.
Gravity follows a team of American astronauts who become stranded in orbit following what is called a Kessler event—a hypothetical scenario in which a mishap in the global satellite network causes a cascade of debris to streak through orbit, colliding with other satellites with devastating force. Old dog team leader Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and newbie astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are left to try and survive the harshest environment of all: outer space.
Those of you familiar the past work of director Cuarón, which includes the cult hits Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men, most likely know of his affinity for the long take, which is a camera shot that lasts an extremely long time before cutting. Cuarón is commonly lauded as the master of this technique, and Children of Men is the go-to movie for illustrating the long take in many media studies classes.
In keeping with his long-shot proclivity, Cuarón edited the film down to just 157 shots for an average length of about 40 seconds per shot in this nearly two-hour movie. In comparison, the average shot length for modern cinema is less than three seconds. But it’s difficult to truly imagine the sheer, staggering ambition of this movie until you realize that the majority of the film frame is computer-generated.
Having a computer-generated frame may sound like it would make creating a long take easier, but the faces of the actors, which are visible through their space suits, are not rendered, and therefore must be filmed separately and edited in. The actors must still move throughout the shot and interact as though they’re on an actual set, and their faces must adjust to changes in lighting, camera movement, and action. And don’t forget, this is all supposed to be occurring in the weightless vacuum of space! The challenge of succeeding with this production in terms of both editing and staging is nearly unfathomable. In fact, prior to advancements in motion-capture technology developed for James Cameron’s Avatar, Gravity would have been impossible to shoot. Cuarón actually put production on hold for years until technology had advanced far enough to achieve his vision, and even after Avatar, the production team of Gravity still had to create its own programs and techniques to pull it off. This dedication, this unwillingness to give up one inch of one’s vision, is awe-inspiring.
Gravity is not just extremely entertaining; it is an important film. And when I say “important,” I don’t just mean “Oscar-worthy” or “You’ll want to brag to your friends about seeing this.” Sitting in the theater watching Gravity, I felt how I imagine audiences back in 1968 must have felt while watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Back then, humanity was just taking its first cautious steps into space, and 2001 captured the fear, uncertainty, and wonder that our species felt, as if we were just on the edge of some great, mysterious truth. Now, 45 years later, the wonder has all but disappeared.
Although it’s not explained in Gravity, the result of the cascading debris that sets off the film’s events is that it will be impossible for humans to send any satellites, manned or unmanned, into orbit for many generations. Within the first 20 minutes, then, humanity’s place in space is lost. All that remains is the fight for survival of two tiny beings against impossible odds. Just like 2001, Gravity has captured a moment in history. This is a science fiction film for a world in which 98 percent of NASA is shut down because of absurd bickering, where the hope of progress has been abandoned for the struggle just to get by.
Yet throughout the movie, sometimes out of sight but never forgotten, the commanding presence of Earth is still felt. Even though there is a note at the beginning of Gravity that declares life in space to be impossible, we are there. Despite the overwhelming improbability of it all, this planet sustains us. It may not last, but for now it’s home, and that’s okay.
Gravity will be playing at the Laemmle Theatre through Oct. 17. I cannot urge you strongly enough to see it.
Additional commentary, reviews, and discussion of film topics are posted weekly on TSL’s website at http://tsl.pomona.edu/authors/662danbrown.