The final sequence of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men offers an example of film-making at its finest. Theo Faron, played by Clive Owen, frantically guides refugee Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and her newborn through a hellish internment camp to an ostensible escape by sea. Kee, her name symbolically overdetermined, is the first person on earth to become pregnant after a generation of sterility.
Children of Men is set against the backdrop of militarized dystopia (Slavoj Žižek has suggested that this background is the essence of the film), a vile, clamorous police state that its hero Theo mutes with alcohol. Theo has yet to come to terms with the grief of losing his son, a plot conceit that mirrors the infinite loss figured in humanity’s sterility (and looming extinction). The film’s thrilling final third sees Theo convert his paralysis into radical action, as he ushers Kee and her newborn through the dystopic background, a violent blur the ideological details of which the audience is free to ignore.
Cuarón strips meaning down to raw, simple, archetypal impulses—Theo is a stand-in for any parent, Kee and her daughter emblematic of genetic futurity. The film sublimates its underlying existential discourse into a gripping narrative fueled by its audience’s own anxieties. The drama culminates in a final sequence in which Cuarón amplifies and extends the existential anxiety by refusing to cut his shots for minutes at a time. The audience finds a surrogate in both Theo and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who moves us physically through violence and disaster.
While directors like Chris Nolan and Michael Bay produce anxiety in their films through frenetic editing and rapid jump cuts, Cuarón’s long takes force the viewer to engage the drama directly. The payoff is that rare creature: A film with an ending stronger than its beginning—a film that goes, that moves, that grips its audience right up until the credits.
Cuarón’s newest film Gravity follows this same template. For ninety minutes, Cuarón—again working with cinematographer Lubezki—forces the audience into a propulsive and sustained anxiety trip. Gravity features astronauts as its heroes, but its technological milieu (space stations, shuttles, astronaut suits) belies its radical simplicity. This is a film about survival that questions why there is indeed a human impulse to survive.
Like Theo of Children of Men, the hero of Gravity Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) has also lost a child. She too has yet to come to terms with her grief. While Children of Men used a dystopic, politicized backdrop to highlight its character’s grief—and, significantly, the specter of infinite infanticide—Gravity offers up an existential void. The film’s near-perfection is that it refuses any other plot elements, giving us only Ryan’s literal attempt to save herself paired with the film’s overdetermined but singular metaphor: outer space as a beautiful, nihilistic abyss.
Gravity has been out for a few weeks now and has done gangbusters at the box office. I take this as a positive sign. This is the kind of blockbuster we need more of, a personal spectacle, a huge film in a minimalist mode. I could pick on a few things, maybe—the score is heavy-handed and obtrusive (and could probably be dispensed with entirely) and some of the dialogue falls clumsily—but I think that Cuarón has made the film he intended to, a sequel of sorts to Children of Men, and one worthy of that film’s climax.
I can’t end here though without addressing Richard Brody’s negative review of Gravity in The New Yorker. Brody is admittedly hard to take seriously after his opening claim that the film is simultaneously “viscerally thrilling and…deadly boring,” a statement that immediately highlights Brody’s biggest critical failure: He wants the film to be something that it is not trying to be.
Brody at length:
Cuarón has done a formidable job of piecing together a plausibly coherent material world of space, of conveying the appearance of that setting and the sensations of the characters who inhabit it. But he has created those sensations generically, with no difference between the subjectivity of his characters and the ostensible appearance to a camera of those phenomena. He offers point-of-view images that are imbued with no actual point of view. The movie, with its near-absolute absence of inner life, presents a material fantasy that flatters the studious humanism of critics who honor the attention to so-called reality—as an aesthetic endowed with a quasi-political virtue.
I’ve included the hyperlink in that last phrase to a confused essay in which Brody decries what he perceives as the failure of contemporary directors to address the imaginative capacity of their characters. For Brody, Gravity has to be a failure—by design, it is a thoroughly concrete transmission of events, a causal chain of consequences. Brody wants flashbacks, moments of introspection; he explicitly calls for the “moral forthrightness of a foregrounded speaker bearing witness.” In Gravity, Bullock’s Ryan is agent and surrogate for the audience, who process and bear witness to her choices and changes. The film’s minimalism strips her choices down to an extended but focused exploration of the problem Hamlet voiced centuries earlier: “To be or not to be.” And Cuarón has offered a moral forthrightness and a clear point of view, even if Brody is uncomfortable with the mechanisms through which Cuarón would have us access it: Gravity chooses To be.