Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity makes good on the promise of the Lumière brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat. Although stories of the Lumière film terrifying spectators may be myth, the 1895 film is an immersive experience, even today. It’s all spectacle and zero plot and it operates perfectly.
Gravity features a plot, but only barely. It’s the most basic type of thriller: it sets up a difficult situation, piles on the peril, and then allows us to watch its protagonist try to grapple with the problem. It’s a rollercoaster ride, almost literally. The camera swings and banks, carrying the viewer along – except it can achieve far more than just thrills of simulated motion. As in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), the fluidity of the CGI camera allows us unprecedented and unexpected access to characters. One moment in particular stands out as a cinematic watershed: the camera views Ryan Stone’s panicked face, then seeps through the visor of the spacesuit to view the projected readouts and view of the Earth from within. It reveals far more about Stone’s predicament than any dialogue or facial expressions. Cuarón trusts viewers to empathise with characters through shared experience.
For such a lean and kinetic film, there are a surprising number of static moments. While some viewers have found Stone’s foetal position too bluntly symbolic, it functions as a peculiar and necessary still centrepoint, following one exhausting experience and preceding others. Similarly, the dialogue isn’t much to write home about, but again functions as shorthand. Finally, although it may have wrongfooted some cinemagoers, the casting of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney fits Cuarón’s approach perfectly. He has so little interest in developing backstory for the characters (What kind of doctor is Stone? What’s the purpose of her scientific project? What do we know about Clooney’s Matt Kowalski at all?) that the familiar, A-list faces serves as shorthand. It allows the film to clock in at a tight 91 minutes, dispensing with the usual flab of Hollywood blockbusters.