The late, great Elmore Leonard advised writers never to open a book with weather. Does a lightning storm count? Last evening I was welcomed to Venice, where I’m just settling in for the 2013 edition of the city’s film festival, with a spectacular lightning storm over the Grand Canal. This is my fourth time at the festival, as well as my fourth time in Venice, and I’ve seen these storms before–the atmospheric something-or-other, plus all this water, plus the magnetic beauty of this elderly and stately city, combine to create the perfect conditions. But I’m always struck by these storms; there’s nothing like them at home in New York. And when I see one on my first night here, I always wonder if it’s a good omen, a promise of similar drama and majesty in the movies to come.
Alfonso Cuarón, whom I now count as one of our greatest living directors, hurled a massive bolt at me this morning with Gravity. I haven’t yet fully recovered. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play two astronauts–one a medical engineer, the other a sort of highly skilled grease monkey who knows everything about how spacecraft work–who find themselves adrift in space, cut off from all (or almost all) Earth communication. This is Cuarón’s first film since his stunning dystopian fantasy 2006 Children of Men, and his first in 3D. I’m thoroughly sick of 3D movies and, until this morning, at least, I would have been happy to never have to look at one again. But I wasn’t prepared for the way Cuarón uses it to explore both wonder and despair, in Gravity. Forget stretched-out blue people, Peter Max–colored flora and fauna, and explosions comin’ at you: This is what 3D was made for.
Gravity is remarkable because it’s both a spectacle and a platform for performers, especially Bullock. Cuarón has some fun with stock 3D effects: wrenches, nuts, bolts, fountain pens, a little Marvin the Martian figurine in its scrub-brushy helmet–all float by at some point, in that optical neverland between the screen and our fingertips. Bullock and Clooney float too, but it’s a different and generally more marvelous thing. In the movie’s early moments, Bullock and Clooney have left the comfort of their space station. She’s intent on installing a very important whatchamacallit to a thingie outside the ship–doing so successfully will give her a chance at better funding for her research back home. He, on the other hand, is just drifting around, being a goofball, entertaining ground control in Houston with tall tales and general waggery. (The voice you hear from the home planet belongs to Ed Harris, who played John Glenn better than anyone else could have in Philip Kaufman’s superb adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.) The setup makes sense: Clooney is the clown, Bullock is the grind. It’s a match made in heaven, or at least the heavens.
What follows is a romance, with elements of romantic comedy and dream logic mixed in. If Clooney’s is the voice you want to hear when you’re trapped in the vast nowhere of space, Bullock’s face is the one you want to see. An early scene shows her drifting further and further away from everything she knows, untethered, possibly losing oxygen. She’s terrified but also astonished at what might be happening to her, and her face has never looked more beautiful–cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki renders her skin as luminous as platinum. Even the sound of her breathing, strained and intensified, draws us close to her. This really is Bullock’s movie. She continues to talk even after contact with home has been lost (Clooney’s character has reminded hers that even though she can’t hear Houston, Houston may be able to hear her). She takes us into her confidence with her soliloquies–we might be the last human beings to hear them.
Gravity is both lyrical and terrifying, and sometimes Cuarón even merges the two, sending us into free fall along with his characters. No space movie arises from a vacuum, and the obvious comparative pulse points for this one include The Right Stuff and Brian De Palma’s sorely underloved Mission to Mars. The Right Stuff isn’t so much about space as about the space program, but Cuarón–who co-wrote the script with Jonás Cuarón, his son–captures the mingling of duty and curiosity that motivates any human being who actually makes it into space. And Cuarón, just as De Palma was, is alive to the empty-full spectacle of space and to the workaday poetry of the words astronauts use to describe it. At the time Mission to Mars was released, detractors made fun of the allegedly stiff dialogue. But have you ever heard astronauts–who are usually men of science, not Iowa Workshop grads–speak when they get that first long-distance view of planet Earth as a glowing orb? They grab for the simplest words, which are often the best. (Elmore, incidentally, would agree.)
Cuarón is even more of a romantic than De Palma, if such a thing is possible. He finds all kinds of ways to link survival in space with life on Earth. There, as here, anyone might have reason to feel loneliness, despair, fear, or exaltation, and homesickness–for a place, a person, a planet–is universal. Incidentally, the first person who tries to tell me Gravity is “unrealistic” or “implausible” is going to get a mock-Vulcan salute and a kick in the pants.
Given the amount of balderdash we have to swallow just to get through a typical summer movie season, taking a small leap of faith and imagination with Cuarón should hardly be a problem. Gravity is harrowing and comforting, intimate and glorious, the kind of movie that makes you feel more connected to the world rather than less. In space, no one can hear you scream. But a whole audience can hear you breathe. And that is a wondrous thing.