September 8, 2013



It’s not really a surprise to see Alfonso Cuaron join James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott in that small group of film artists who have made 3D part of the essential toolbox of their imagery (no, Baz Luhrmann and Guillermo del Toro don’t make the list, although Michael Bay might).  Cuaron is a visionary of contemporary film, whether he’s toying with sexually-charged political drama in Y Tu Mama Tambien, transforming the Harry Potter franchise or making jaws drop with the spectacular action sequences in Children of Men.  Much, in fact, was expected of Cuaron’s 3D as soon as it was announced that his GRAVITY would be presented in that format, and he’s delivered, sensationally.  Box office reports indicate that–at least in the US–steadily fewer ticketbuyers are willing to pay the several-dollars premium required for the technology, and rightly so, since at best, most 3D movies are unimpressive, and by darkening the image, they not infrequently look even worse than their 2D counterparts.  But Gravity demands to be seen in its full 3D universe, and on the biggest screen you can find.  This isn’t the usual throw-things-past-the-camera 3D, but something marvelous and unique, a true simulation of depth in unearthly surroundings.

The premise of Gravity couldn’t be simpler; it’s reminiscent, in some ways, of the rigorous technical challenges that Hitchcock would set himself from time to time with movies like Rope and Lifeboat.  Two astronauts, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are on a space-walk outside their shuttle; Kowalsky is a seasoned space-traveler, while Stone is a scientist who’s still fumbling to find her comfort level.  Suddenly, debris knocks them loose of their tethers, cut off from any contact with Earth and with little time and oxygen to find a way back to safety.  That’s almost all there is to the script Cuaron wrote with his son Jonas, and to the extent there’s any more, it wouldn’t be fair to spoil what happens.

So Gravity isn’t one of Cuaron’s more thoughtful, thematically exciting dramas, although it offers virtually nonstop tension and excitement in its taut 93-minute length.  Its limited story of survival is the backdrop to its real purpose, which is to create the most believable, immersive simulation of existence in outer space that any fictional film has ever accomplished.  Cuaron’s cosmos is both as abstract and artistically defined as Kubrick’s in 2001 and as convincing as a documentary, and he wastes no time in laying claim to it, starting Gravity with an incredible continuous 13-minute shot in which Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuaron’s cinematographer of choice, roves his camera around and between the stars and the shuttle, through who knows what technically wondrous means, with apparently complete, weightless freedom.  (In this context, it’s hard to tell the boundary between Lubezki’s cinematography and the special effects team’s creations, just as the “production design” is partly Andy Nicholson’s and partly CG–all the critical departments work together inseparably.)  Weightlessness itself, the movement of mass in different degrees of atmosphere, is a crucial part of Cuaron’s story, and it’s brilliantly captured in the movie’s various environments.

Bullock and Clooney have to carry the entire dramatic weight of the story, and they remind us what real movie stars are capable of doing.  Clooney, always a superb manager of his own voice, is perfectly cast here as a laid-back, and then urgent, agent of authority, and Bullock, as reliable an audience stand-in as the movies have, carries the viewer with her through a gamut of fear and determination.  Ultimately some backstory is revealed about one of the characters, and although it’s easy to understand why the Cuarons thought that necessary, it may have been a small mistake, detracting from the stark life-or-death immediacy of the action.  Nevertheless, it’s beautifully performed.

The ads for 2001 back in 1968 proclaimed it “The Ultimate Trip,” and while Gravity doesn’t supply the same measure of hallucinatory interdimensional travel, it takes the audience on a remarkable journey, Hollywood’s most notable one of the year so far.  Cuaron preserves his reputation as a peerless cinematic travel agent to wherever he chooses to take us.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."