Back in November, Alfonso Cuaron was asked by Esquire about “unique experiences” in cinema. They’d framed the conversation as TV vs. Film, and Cuaron remarked that TV rarely produces brain-searing moments. Scenarios? Characters? Sure. But if you’re looking for a better batting average on memorable moments, cinema is holding the big stick. At least, as Cuaron amends, cinema outside the mainstream.
For a filmmaker who’s delivered gargantuan imagery and scenic epinephrine, his go-to for a unique film experience this year is telling.
“It depends on what you call a unique experience. I just saw the Woody Allen film [Blue Jasmine], and I thought it was just amazing. It’s not that it’s going to give you a roller coaster of a ride. It’s just an amazing film. But definitely there are directors, even in the mainstream cinema, in Hollywood, people like [David] Fincher and Wes Anderson and David O. Russell and Guillermo del Toro, who are doing really exciting mainstream cinema.”
Gravity might be the polar opposite of Blue Jasmine. One is unrelenting high concept with a sprinkle of backstory, the other is a piercing dramedy with rounded characters. On the other hand, they both feature towering performances from focus-monopolizing actresses playing struggling women. They’ll also collide in some way on the road to Oscar, creating a convenient story of thematic similarities and structural antitheses to consider when we think about what movies we hold above others at the end of a calendar year.
For Gravity, it’s the melding of experimental independence with popcorn blockbusting that matters most. It might be difficult to imagine, but if you put your brain back in the mindset of 2010 when the film was in its nascent stage, you might laugh at how preposterous the idea was. It was a time when Scarlett Johansson and, yes, Blake Lively were considered for the lead role that ultimately went to Sandra Bullock, but it was also a time when it seemed like an impossibility. Here was a script entirely set in space with only two characters, not based off a comic book, made by a director not well known beyond the roar of Children of Men’s well-earned fanaticism (note: Harry Potter is the name the general public remembered after Curse of the Time-Turner, not Cuaron), that would vacuum an $80m budget from a major studio. It was always a gamble ‐ so much so that people shouted that the sky was falling when Angelina Jolie dropped out of it.
So it’s amazing that it got made in the first place. Massive kudos should go to Warners for doubling down on it and betting on a merger of talent, originality and technological advancement.
That last front was breached in 2009 with Avatar. Dismiss the characters and borrowed plot of the blue cat story if you want, but the immersion offered by the tech at the time was peerless. It was one of those unique experiences that grabbed you by the ears until you knew something. Thus, it’s an impressive achievement that Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki blew other filmmakers’ minds ‐ including deep sea diver James Cameron ‐ when talking about their proposed technique. Guillermo del Toro offered details to MTV back in 2011:
“I think what is incredible about what they did is, they talked to David Fincher, they talked to Jim Cameron… I connected Jim and Alfonso for that… And what Alfonso is trying, is so insane. And Jim said, ‘Well look, what you’re trying is about five years into the future.’ When James said that it’s too early to try anything that crazy… they did it.”
The result is a movie that puts you in space, and leaves you there for an hour and a half. With the theoretically impossible pairing of claustrophobia and agoraphobia not enough, Cuaron and his screenwriting partner/son Jonas creating a ticking clock that counted down to fresh disaster ‐ giving Ryan Stone a new set of hellish hula hoops to jump through on her journey back to sweet, sweet Earth.
Bullock owned the role, pushing sinew until we were experiencing sympathy pains brought on by the fun house terror of Cuaron’s wholesale emptiness and the rigid breathlessness that our hero offered in response. If the effects team took us to space, Bullock forced us to hold her hand on the ride down. Hers was a stunning achievement, particularly since the movie focused far more on the atmosphere than the person caught in the crossfire of debris.
There’s a significant power in spectacle, but it’s also easy to grumble about this year’s numbing bombardment of flying matter over mind. The summer was overstuffed with the same recipe for disaster that saw Superman destroying a billion dollars worth of city and Iron Man destroying his personal wealth equivalence in R&D. But that crowded field is another reason to cherish Gravity for its accomplishment ‐ despite being charged by explosives, it offered an experiential engagement that made fireballs and despair special again. Comic book heroes were busy trying to save the world while Ryan Stone was merely trying to survive, and that blend of intimacy and super massiveness ensured that Gravity amazed, not because it was the only option, but in spite of being one of many.
As several others will say, 2013 was also a year packed with prestige. Movies like 12 Years a Slave and Her delivered complex, new outlooks to force wrestling matches in our hearts and minds. There were no fewer than two dozen towering achievements, but while they are the best of their breeds, Gravity is a new species altogether. With a row of sharp teeth continuing for a billion miles, it’s a train arriving at the station for a cynical, seen-everything 2013.
At the end of that Esquire interview, Cuaron claims that “the future is just going to be different paradigms.” He’s undoubtedly correct, and Gravity will have been one of those bold challenges that propels that future. A harmony of closeness and expansiveness, mainstream elements and indie ideal, loud bangs and still quiet, Alfonso Cuaron and his team have crafted something singular. Special. Unique.