As an actor reads their lines and moves around the set – or around a light box containing 1.8 million LED bulbs, in Gravity’s case – their ability to inhabit a role isn’t just affected by their talents as a performer, but by the baggage they bring along with them. Against their own control, they present a mélange of their current part, the notable characters they’ve played before, and whatever the audience believes about their private life, true or otherwise. In acting, to be employable is to be recognisable, and to be recognisable is to be classifiable.
Beyond the commercial motivations for using popular, well-known actors, such casting allows filmmakers to shrewdly play them against type, or to use their presence as narrative shorthand. You don’t need to establish, say, that a character played by George Clooney is charmingly aloof but essentially decent – he’s George Clooney. At its worst, this approach cynically expects star power to do the work that the screenwriter was unable to, but when a filmmaker genuinely understands both an actor’s strengths and their innate persona they can use it to tell a story that satisfies in unspoken ways.
For a film as relentlessly action-heavy as Gravity, efficiently establishing character and motivation is essential. Depicted almost in real time, the film follows two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) stranded in space after a catastrophic debris strike on their shuttle. The pair must find a way to survive before their oxygen runs out and the debris completes its orbit and hits them again. Set in the blankness of space with only two characters (excluding a few auditory contributions and a winking vocal cameo from Ed Harris as Mission Control), director Alfonso Cuarón and his co-screenwriter/son Jonás have little opportunity for creating back story without bombarding the audience with exposition. Where Cuarón’s previous film Children of Men was able to provide such information through the use of superlative production design, Gravity’s lack of environmental context means that intuitive casting is required to do much of the heavy lifting.
Considering the production’s much-reported casting problems – Cuarón waited years for technology to catch up to his vision, losing initial lead Angelina Jolie in the process – it’s difficult to think of an American movie star better suited to the film’s central role than Sandra Bullock. Sitting quietly amongst Gravity’s many achievements – and it is, unequivocally, one of the most technically accomplished motion pictures ever made – is something unglamorous but absolutely crucial to its success: it’s a perfectly cast film.
Mark Hamill once compared acting in Star Wars to being like a raisin in a giant fruit salad, and to an extent that’s always going to be an issue in films that focus on delivering action through special effects. However, for all of its overwhelming visual splendor, Gravity absolutely hinges on Bullock’s performance, and her performance absolutely hinges on our understanding of her as an actress.
Bullock entered the public’s consciousness in the early nineties with a pair of supporting roles in high-concept action movies: first in 1993’s Demolition Man, where she portrayed a meek, 20th century-obsessed cop, and eight months later as a frazzled passenger-turned-bus-driver in Speed. The actress has appeared in 28 pictures since then, but it was in those two parts that audiences’ perception of her as a good-natured ingénue calcified. Unfortunately, the starring roles afforded to Bullock by Speed’s breakout success have been mostly restricted to an unending series of middling romcoms, sentimental dramas and fluffy comedies (this year’s excellent The Heat being a notable exception), but regardless of merit, most of these films have drawn in some way upon her established thespian identity.
The parallels between Gravity and Bullock’s early, defining roles are unmistakable. In both Speed and Demolition Man she plays an inexperienced figure out of her depth, nudged into a dangerous, high-pressure situation by her charismatic male co-star. Under both circumstances the character excels, albeit stutteringly, against the odds. Two decades since Bullock’s ascension to stardom, Gravity finds her coming full circle in the part of Dr Ryan Stone, a bereaved mission specialist battling an upset stomach on her first visit to space. Guided by the jovial reassurances of veteran Matt Kowalski (Clooney), Ryan must overcome physical hardships and paralysing fear in order to escape her ordeal.
The character is easy to root for because regardless of whether or not you can accept Bullock as a medical engineer, you can accept her as an individual who has the will to achieve despite self-doubt. Ryan, in essence, is the same character Bullock first played twenty years ago, and it’s precisely this fact that makes her so empathetic. We’ve been here before, but this time something is different, colouring the familiar narrative of hard-fought proficiency. Shadowed by grief and uncertain of whether there’s even anything back on Earth worth surviving for, Ryan is damaged by her past. Evelyn Waugh almost certainly wasn’t thinking about Sandra Bullock when he wrote Brideshead Revisited (in part because she hadn’t been born yet, but also because it’s difficult to imagine him enjoying Demolition Man), but on seeing her performance in Gravity it’s possible to be reminded of the line:
“That was the change in her from ten years ago; that, indeed, was her reward, this haunting, magical sadness which spoke straight to the heart and struck silence; it was the completion of her beauty.”
Protagonists in action cinema are often delineated by an innate steeliness, but Ryan’s temerity comes with reluctance, driven instead by primal survival instincts in the face of entirely reasonable panic. Placed in her position by the narrative’s singular focus and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s lingering camerawork, the audience shares her sense of alarm and disorientation, as well as her urge to fight. Ryan does extraordinary things, not because she is extraordinary but because humans have the capacity to become so when events demand it.
Ryan’s efforts not just to live but to find reasons to do so are what propel Gravity from being an exhilarating, mesmeric exercise in action filmmaking towards the realm of the spiritual, and this can only be achieved through such a raw, mature performance. Acknowledging the limitations imposed upon the actors by the production’s incommodious technical demands, the accomplishment is even more striking.
Given that the film is only an hour and a half long (17 minutes of which are taken up by its astonishing opening shot), what’s most surprising about Gravity is how patient it is, especially considering the immediate, colossal danger facing the characters. With their spacesuits draining of power and oxygen, Ryan and Matt’s progress is often slow, relying on gentle movements. Despite the fact that virtually everything is animated except the actors themselves, the film places an importance on the manipulation of objects: locks need to be thrown, moorings untethered, and hatches opened. There’s a lot of stillness, even dead time, and this affords Cuarón the chance to produce moments of great beauty, reflection and sadness.
This measured pacing is also highly effective at creating tension. Dangerous situations are given the room to develop naturally: a spark, briefly glimpsed, builds into a perilous fire, whilst a vitally important cord gets agonisingly looser and looser. The cinematic language of lengthy takes that Cuarón and Lubezki have developed together over their career-long collaboration works impeccably for the subject matter: the same slowness that allows for contemplation also allows for sequences of extreme emergency. By taking place in real time, the audience is aware of just how grave individual hazards are. The film doesn’t cheat.
Sadly, Gravity’s use of dialogue is less impressive. It’s an understandable problem: the difficulty with having your entire film centered on the actions of a single person is that everything they say is like someone ringing a bell. Cuarón and Cuarón’s screenplay is utilitarian and purposefully thin, employing abbreviated characterisation to provide all the information the audience needs and nothing more. An action movie in its purest form, Gravity is defined instead by its emphasis on movement and physical struggle – a moment where Ryan curls up into a foetal position expressing more about the character’s state than a conversation could. Featuring long stretches without any speech at all, its focus is the human body, vulnerable and under threat
It becomes clear at a certain point that the story is essentially binary: disregarding all of the specific variables, the film can only really have two possible outcomes. The one that Cuarón opts for is arguably the more daring, but it almost doesn’t matter. Ultimately, Gravity isn’t about the struggle to survive but about why that struggle is important. Open to both humanist and religious interpretation, Ryan’s trials are a metaphor for renewing faith. Stranded in nothingness, she must try to find her way back towards something tangible. The deluge of recent articles nitpicking every element of Gravity’s science miss the point entirely: despite his thorough research, Cuarón favours storytelling over accuracy when the film demands it. Faced with the choice between airtight logic and making a riveting, beautiful picture about why we endeavour, he has selected the latter.