Gravity was easily one of 2014’s most anticipated films coming into fall, but Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi took most critics by surprise when it took the number one spot at the box-office several weeks in a row. It is rare that a film with experimental roots takes audiences by storm (nearing $500,000,000 worldwide), it does happen occasionally in hits like Inception and Avatar, but those stories had much more conventional narratives than what we are presented with in Gravity.
Kristin Thompson, co-author of Film Art: An Introduction, took to her husband’s site (David Bordwell) to address just how Alfonso Cuarón accomplished this remarkable task.
“David and I have often claimed that Hollywood cinema has a certain tolerance for novelty, innovation, and even experiment, but that such departures from convention are usually accompanied by a strong classical story to motivate the strangeness for popular audiences. (This assumption is central to our e-book on Christopher Nolan.) Gravity has such a story, though Cuaron is remarkably successful at minimizing its prominence. The film’s construction privileges excitement, suspense, rapid action, and the universally remarked-upon sense of immersion alongside the character in a situation of disorienting weightlessness and constant change.”
Thompson also takes note of several new techniques that were utilized in making Gravity. Among the most prominent of those innovations were a new camera mount, “Isis… devised to allow the camera to twist and whirl around the actors” and the “Light Box… a giant inside-out LED monitor that allows the film’s own previs special effects to light the faces and bodies of the actors inside the box, making it possible for those shots to be integrated seamless into the effects shots.”
“In short, it is hard to think of another mass-audience film in recent years that has so thoroughly departed from the current technological and stylistic conventions of mainstream filmmaking. Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings, to be sure; perhaps Avatar. Publications devoted to the techniques of cinema have recognized this. TheCinefex issue dealing with Gravity is not yet out, but on the journal’s blog, Don Shay’s remark is quoted: “Every once in a while, a film comes along that is a game-changer. This is one of those films.” Debra Kaufman, writing about the film’s 3D for Creative Cow, agrees: “Anyone who’s seen Gravity 3D will agree that the 3D was a game changer.” And unlike those earlier game-changers, Gravity has a strong experimental component to it that audiences gladly accept, since it is so well motivated by the story and situation.”
Some of Gravity‘s detractors argue that the film could have done more to solidify the minimalist nature it was going for, but given the large budget and studio notes, the director did everything he could to preserve the film’s integrity. In a sitdown with IndieWire‘s Kevin Jagernauth, Cuarón shared what could have been added to the finished product.
“But at first, the studio suggested that [the Mission Control] team in Houston should get more face time. “…there area lot of ideas. People start suggesting other stuff. ‘You need to cut to House and see how the rescue mission goes.'” And that’s not all. Part of the emotional journey of “Gravity” rests on Stone’s backstory, which includes a daughter she lost, but this is all effectively communicated without breaking the single location concept. However, Cuarón was advised to perhaps include some flashbacks in the film and even more. “A whole thing with … a romantic relationship with the Mission Control Commander, who is in love with her. All that kind of stuff. What else? To finish with a whole rescue helicopter, that would come and rescue her. Stuff like that,” he explained of some of the ideas that were floated his way.”
After looking at what potentially could have found its way into a story with one setting and two central characters, I think it is safe to say that calling the film regressive is a little harsh given what could have been released. Creating real change within cinematic art-forms and also releasing that film to an audience so it can be seen is a precarious tightrope to walk; avoiding having your work drastically altered, but also finding an aesthetic middle-ground.
Alfonso Cuarón managed to do something most directors never do: creating an experimental picture inside the convention-minded studio system.