Dorothy had it easy. When she at last understood she wanted to go home, all she had to do was click her heels and say the words. But when Sandra Bullock makes up her mind to go home in Alfonso Cuarón’s entirely amazing Gravity, she can’t get there unless she’s willing to somersault through the void, bounce repeatedly off large metal objects, swim through fire, consult technical manuals in Russian and Chinese (languages her character doesn’t read) and, not least, master her death wish. “What now?” she yells at one point, in a tone midway between exasperation and terror, as the latest of her challenges (many of which are razor-sharp) come zooming out of an indifferent cosmos. This is what a medical engineer turned rookie astronaut may expect when she’s stranded above Earth without a spaceship: a very bad four or five hours of plot time. The audience, though, may experience Bullock’s struggles in Gravity another way: as the occasion for ninety minutes of pure exhilaration.
It all depends on how strongly you respond to the way motion pictures move. Although the plot of Gravity presents the ultimate case of existential dread, and a harsh lesson in the economics of being alone in the universe (only so much oxygen to budget, only so much time), the style revels in overabundance, having joyfully left behind all constraints. Cuarón is now leading the post-graduate fellowship program of the look-ma-no-hands school of filmmaking; and in case any of the moms out there are inattentive, he cues them through the characters to notice that wonders are being worked.
As Gravity begins, with the shuttle Explorer orbiting gradually into sight, Bullock’s character (improbably called Ryan Stone) is bent none too happily over a task outside the capsule, her eyes fixed on the piece of equipment in front of her, while around her two crewmates who enjoy taking the longer view are at play. Shariff (Phaldut Sharma), who is tied to the Explorer’s frame by a long cord, has made himself into a human tether ball and is whipping around while shouting “Whee!” Kowalski (George Clooney), who is of course the cocky but comfortingly reliable veteran, has cut loose completely from the ship and is performing acrobatics with the help of a jet pack. You might think of Cuarón’s camera as an unseen fourth person moving among these characters and sharing their happier moods. It joins in Shariff’s rapture at being freed from the struggle to bear weight; it emulates Kowalski’s lighthearted professionalism in always choosing the right thing to do, when it seems as if anything at all could be done.
While you lose track of the compass points and the passage of time, the camera in this endless, seamless first scene dives and darts around and under and through the superstructure of the Explorer, coasts up to and over and past the characters, slips smoothly from outside Bullock’s helmet to inside for a point-of-view shot and without a single evident cut keeps circling the objects in motion, all the while being circled by them. You could say, without abusing the term, that you are witnessing a revolution. It’s the overthrow of your normal understanding of how films are put together, effected by the conspiracy of Cuarón, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Timothy Webber by evoking the abandonment in outer space of your normal physical senses. You know, for example, that if George Clooney floats out of sight on the left side of the frame, he is not supposed to float back into the same shot from the right. That’s a fundamental convention of moviemaking, based on the sort of real-world experience that tells you that Earth should be below Clooney’s feet and not above his head, and certainly never in both positions at almost the same time. Say goodbye to convention; so long, quotidian up and down. You may think you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick explore the systematic derangement of all the senses in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Gravity now makes that film seem like an exercise in fixed-camera sobriety.
This is not to say that Gravity is a better film than 2001. I’ll get to that question in a moment. For now, let me make one more point about the style of Gravity: although computer-generated imagery has enabled the film’s innovations, it does not account for their impact. The long, continuous takes seem so thrillingly impossible, the weightless flights of the camera so liberating, only because Cuarón is careful never to disturb your ingrained notion that a big movie camera must somehow have been set up at the scene to record what you’re seeing. You know better, of course. And yet, starting with an opening image that temporarily pretends to be a static establishing shot, Cuarón keeps lulling you back into a belief in the physical presence of objects, imparting a Newtonian force and momentum to his surprises by bouncing them off your immovable assumptions.
And so I come to the three-dimensional tears of Sandra Bullock.
During a brief lull in the action, just long enough for you to catch your breath, Bullock’s character reflects on the pain that the script says she’s borne for years; and as she mourns, a watery globe suddenly floats into sight, to hang suspended in the illusory space in front of the screen. This teardrop, which you could almost touch, is now the main focus of the scene, while Bullock blurs into an indistinct backdrop. It’s a charming touch and probably not overdone (except for being repeated immediately, to make sure everyone catches on). Still, it seems telling that Gravity should concentrate however briefly on manifesting a material substance before your eyes, rather than allowing Bullock to continue connecting with you directly, as she knows very well how to do.
Maybe Cuarón forces the emotion here in the guilty knowledge that his screenplay (written in collaboration with his son Jonás) gives Bullock’s character only the most banal past to go with her wildly desperate present. Without revealing more than I should, I can tell you that 10,000 movie heroines have suffered the sorrow that haunts her. It’s practically the first thing that male screenwriters grab for when inventing a troubled woman, but not the only evidence of thoughtlessness in this script. The Cuaróns also fall back on a sentimental religiosity that is beneath Bullock, and demand nothing more from Clooney than another flash of the easy heroism that he’s spent the past fifteen years trying to complicate or avoid.
Hence the superiority of 2001. Kubrick simply offers you more substance; and in the future, when the wow factor of Gravity is diminished, as that of 2001 has faded now, the imbalance between the two films will be even more obvious.
Still, I would hate to make Gravity sound like nothing more than a technical achievement. The film does have a theme—call it the worthiness of human burdens, or the heroism of standing on your feet—and uses the marvels of its imagery to drive that meaning home, just as surely as it uses your reliance on ordinary thinking to make itself seem astounding. This dialectic even places Gravity in tension with Cuarón’s previous films. Although he solidified his reputation by toying imaginatively with social realism in Y Tu Mamá También, his artistic instincts seem to go strongly toward myth and fable. His was the only Harry Potter film that actually felt magical, and his terrific Children of Men (whose long, mobile takes presaged Gravity) built a wonderfully paranoid apocalyptic thriller out of rubble and hooey. In Gravity, he has let loose his love of the fantastic with a freedom and exuberance that no one could have foreseen, only to put it at the service of the message “There’s no place like home.”
If Clooney might be said to articulate Cuarón’s thoughts when he remarks on the beauty that can be seen only from outer space, at the far edge of responsibility, then Bullock speaks to Cuarón’s heart. I have read that she was not at first available for the film and that several other actresses were considered, and can say only that if she had not been cast, there would have been no ground to Gravity. Her taut, straining face and body unfailingly persuade you that she’s calling up miraculous reserves of willpower and vigor; her voice, so often pitched between a sigh and a rasp, is always the right instrument to cry defiance in the midst of extremity. Despite the tears floating around, despite the wheeling universe, she is the center of this movie. When Clooney says to her, “You’re going to make it,” you know she will, because that is what Sandra Bullock does, every time. And she makes Gravity.
* * *
The title signals who you’re expected to identify with in Paul Greengrass’s latest almost-true movie, Captain Phillips, as does the presence of Tom Hanks in the starring role. Nevertheless, the experience is more nuanced than you might expect.
Based on an account written by the real Captain Richard Phillips, the film re-enacts the capture of a US-registered cargo ship by Somali pirates in 2009, the captain’s successful efforts to keep his crew from harm (through initiatives that led to his being taken hostage in a lifeboat) and his eventual rescue by Navy SEAL snipers. You may recall that at the time of the incident, the newspapers made much of Barack Obama’s decision to authorize the SEALs to shoot, as evidence (welcome in some quarters) of the new president’s willingness to use armed force. To its credit, Captain Phillips treats the reliance on firepower as business-as-usual for the United States (Obama is not mentioned by name), and also as a policy that is not without moral complications. Even more to its credit, though, Captain Phillips assumes that the pirates also had their reasons. The film does not endorse those reasons—nor should it, as far as I’m concerned—but it does provide a context for the pirates and a note of respect for their leader. Although Greengrass assumes you will see the events through Phillips’s eyes, he makes you look straight back into the eyes of a skilled and very determined captor.
Like Greengrass’s earlier United 93, Captain Phillips is by nature a claustrophobic film. It opens up when and where it can—touring the vast, candy-colored maze of the container port in Oman, for example, or cutting away to the command deck of the Navy ship coming to Phillips’s rescue—but it’s canny enough to use the inherent crowding, airlessness and looming menace of the story as means to build suspense. Greengrass establishes the mood even before he needs to, filming Phillips’s departure from his home in Vermont almost entirely in disjointed close-ups, and the mustering of his opposite number, the pirate crew captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi), as part of a jolting, kaleidoscopic hubbub in a coastal village. By the time Phillips has closed himself onto the bridge of the Maersk Alabama, and Muse is jammed with his men into a little open motorboat racing toward its prey, you are attuned to the nervous self-control of men under pressure, as expressed in Greengrass’s tense, quick editing rhythm.
Hanks improves the effect by giving one of his least ingratiating performances. I mean that as a compliment. Dressed in fashion-free wire-rim eyeglasses, wearing a salt-and-pepper goatee and speaking in a New England bray, Hanks plays Phillips as a humorless disciplinarian who is respected by his senior officers but elicits no warmth from the men. He seems easygoing, though, compared with Abdi’s portrayal of Muse. Conveying the resoluteness of someone who has been insulted and humiliated all his life, and who looks forward to seeing each of his mockers in the grave, Abdi may look too scrawny to be attacking huge cargo ships or facing down challenges from a crew, but he plays Muse as a man who is as slim as a length of steel cable and comparably unyielding. When he says to Phillips, upon reaching the bridge, “Look at me. Now I am the captain,” it’s clear that the American is up against someone who is nothing less than his equal.
Captain Phillips has neither the investigative purpose that animated Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday (still perhaps his best film) nor the rigorously observational focus of United 93 but operates on a middle ground between the two. It reconstructs events honestly (and excitingly), mostly on the basis of established facts, but also prompts you to make a judgment. When it comes to the conflict between the two captains, the film comes down without reserve in favor of Phillips. About the conflict between two vastly unequal nations, the film is more ambivalent. To pay for US superiority, Phillips understands, he might be written off as expendable. In his stern professionalism, he accepts that reality. Greengrass makes him seem admirable for it—but the film conceals neither the price nor the number of people who cough it up.
Captain Phillips was the crowd-pleasing but substantial opening-night selection of this year’s New York Film Festival. About that, more to come.