I’m no film critic, but I have seen two films over the past week that are worth some reflection: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. The unifying theme here is a Mexican man named Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, who frequently collaborates with both Cuarón and Malick.
To be clear, I’m not at all a cinematography connoisseur; I simply saw some scenes in Gravity that reminded me of Malick’s The Tree of Life, and was pleasantly surprised to learn the same guy was behind both of them. This gave me a good excuse to go watch Malick’s latest film. Warning: spoilers galore, though I’d add the caveat that if you’re fixated on the plot of either of these films, you’re probably missing the point.
Gravity, perhaps the most hyped film of 2013, tells the story of Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a rookie astronaut who must fight for her life after things go wrong in orbit, though she has some help from veteran space explorer Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Though it takes place in space, it’s hardly typical science fiction; aside from a few liberties with actual physics, it is entirely plausible, and could easily happen to a space explorer in 2013. Of course, more fantastical science fiction can offer compelling human drama, but by stripping away the alien races and souped-up technology and specialized terminology, the human drama comes to the forefront.
Still, Gravity is not a film one could accuse of having too much plot. There is only the slightest of backstory for both astronauts, and the action begins so early in the film that there’s not much time to get to know them. Kowalski in particular is hard to separate from Clooney, and while Clooney himself is a delightful enough personality to be reasonably compelling, he is not a deep character. That leaves us with Stone, and her story also runs the danger of being rather hackneyed: a broken woman, emotionally spent after the death of her child, is jarred back into life by a debonair man and a brush with death. Bullock does a good job of presenting the emotion of that journey. Her tears drifting off through space are real (if, sadly, not scientifically accurate), and the scene in which Kowalski “returns” and gives her reason to live, while threatening to head down the road toward mawkishness, is no doubt sincere. These moments resonate because we really do have moments like that in life, and just because something’s been done before (as most any plot has by now) doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful.
Symbolically, the film is a masterwork, and on this front, it does take the full film to unfold. Cuarón and Lubezki have created a film of stunning beauty that is far more than CGI flashiness. From the umbilical cord tethers to Stone drifting about in the space station in a fetal position to her exiting the womb and heading out into the vast nothing beyond, it is a story of rebirth, and the creation of life from nothing. The film has an element of terror to it, a terror perhaps worse than anything that can be brought on by a villain or some sort of earthly destruction: sheer, endless emptiness. If Stone lets go, she is doomed to die adrift, alone, desperately sucking for her rapidly-diminishing oxygen, her mind running wild with fright. While a bunch of chunks of debris may set events in motion, Stone is a sort of Robinson Crusoe in space, and her most bitter enemy is not time or broken satellites, but her own wavering will. After the death of her daughter, she is lost in space in every sense of the phrase, with only some vague radio chatter in the background to numb her into a monotonous routine. She is drawn back to earth by Kowalski’s charm, both in the lightness of his humor and the gravity of his exhortations: she must find a way. The final scene, back on Earth and resplendent in color, with Stone emerging from the sea and feeling the sand in her fingers and rising up to take her first few stumbling steps, is reminiscent of Malick at his best.
To the Wonder is not Malick at his best; in fact, the film was widely panned, and it is not hard to imagine how its airy beauty and whispered religious musings could turn off a lot of people. (Roger Ebert, on the other hand, gave it a boost in the last review he ever penned.) Like Gravity, it is an exhausting picture, with so much in each frame that one can easily forget to read the subtitles as one tries to drink in all the details and figure out all the symbols and keep up with whatever it is that Javier Bardem is muttering in the background. The film stars Ben Affleck as an American who meets Olga Kurylenko in Paris and lures her back to Oklahoma, where their relationship goes through an endless number of trials and tribulations. (I assume the characters have names, but they’re never mentioned in the film, so I’m just going with the actors’ names here.) Unlike the sustained intensity of Cuarón’s film, Malick’s is an endless cycle of ups and downs, brilliant light juxtaposed against somber greys, all beautiful and, in a certain sense, more draining than Ryan Stone’s space flight. The accelerating pace in Gravity is constant, eventually numbing the viewer somewhat, while the peaks and valleys in To the Wonder can take fully invested viewers and lift them up into that wondrous state before crashing back down to earth. As surreal as it seems, its emotional swings really do capture the daily flow of human life.
The dynamic between the two leads is fairly similar in both films. As with Bullock’s Stone, Kurylenko’s character is a bit damaged, and rather flighty; she is juxtaposed against the stolid Affleck, and although he does show some maturation and has flashes of anger and disappointment, the male lead is once again without a past and lacks the emotional range of his partner. Lost daughters are once again a theme: Kurylenko has a ten-year-old who at first comes with her to Oklahoma, but struggles to fit in and goes back to France to live with her father; Rachel McAdams, Affleck’s rebound after Kurylenko leaves him, lost her only child. The firm man and the emotional woman once again run the risk of cliché, but there can be truth in clichés, and viewers’ willingness to accept their sincerity will likely define their reactions.
The redeeming feature of To the Wonder is Bardem, who shows off his incredible range in playing the doubting priest in the Oklahoma parish. He gives the film a backbone, guiding us through the rises and falls in the love story, his own troubled relationship with God following a similar course. If the fear of loneliness motivates the terror of Gravity, the fear of commitment and the burdens of love drive To the Wonder; while Gravity ends with Stone rising up on to a beach and marveling at the beauty of creation, To the Wonder starts on one, a rather somber beach beneath the gothic church of Mont Saint-Michel, where Affleck and Kurylenko’s love is immune to the grey day around them. “Love is a duty,” Father Bardem reminds us, soldiering through parish politics and his visits to the poor and suffering, wondering where God is in all of this madness. To the Wonder struggles somewhat because it has taken such a massive theme—love—and tried to pack it into a two-hour feature, and while Malick and Lubezki fit an awful lot of stuff into those two hours, it’s hard to do it justice.
Despite the very conventional trappings of To the Wonder (love story in Paris, archetypal characters, life in suburbia with amber waves of grain), it is highbrow in a way that Gravity isn’t, and also has a radical edge. The reason for this is religious: Malick is, of course, an explicitly Christian filmmaker, and that makes him a bit of an odd duck in the modern film industry. He’s not here to proselytize or show off the wonders of faith, either; instead, much as in The Tree of Life—a meditation on the Book of Job—the emphasis is on the meaninglessness of it all, and on faith as consolation in the face of tragedy. It’s also intellectually robust, which explains why the film was lost on many people. And even some of the people who did understand what was going on might not have liked it if they were annoyed by the religious themes or frustrated with the vagueness of it all. Even so, Malick is the epitome of David Foster Wallace’s “new literary rebel” (see the last paragraph for the summary).
Gravity, as gripping as it can be, isn’t going to rock any planets. Its themes are far more universal (gah, so many puns): the rebirth-of-meaning arc is something you can find in just about any culture. This is great for happy liberal themes in which we all just get along, and also great for selling movies to as many people as possible. However, it also runs the risk of being glib, or being artsy for its own sake but not aspiring to much else. There is a trade-off here that many artists have to make: go deep and risk losing people (Malick), or stay away from those more troubling questions and let the prettiness stand alone (Cuarón). My own instincts, being somewhat on the snobbish side, tip toward Malick—even though I don’t entirely share his worldview.
This isn’t to condemn Gravity. It deserves all of the plaudits it’s received for its beauty, and it reminds us of how visual innovation in film is far from over. Demanding intellectual rigor out of all art can quickly grow tiresome, especially when that annoying life thing makes one do things other than be a critic. It may not really challenge anyone, but if one knows how to ask the right questions, middlebrow film is good enough to raise plenty of issues that demand further explanation. And given the confines of the two-hour feature film, there’s a good argument for relying on television instead of the silver screen for true depth. (Want a sincere, near-avant-garde look at modern American life, with much more profound characters and fewer religious trappings? Watch Friday Night Lights.) When it comes to visual power, though, the cinematography of a man like Lubezki offers so much that a film can stand on its own as a superb work of art. Whether that is enough for you, or if you want art to demand something more…well, that’s up to you, and there’s wisdom in both answers.