Anti-Gravity: Why Alfonso Cuarón's Space Odyssey Is Shortsighted About Long-Takes


Alfonso Cuarón’s fetish for long takes reaches its apex with “Gravity”, a film in which the camera drifts, tumbles and pirouettes in space, sometimes within the same shot, with its stranded astronauts. Ostensibly, this is the fullest realization of the promise F.W. Murnau first brought the cinema when his camera seemed to take leave of the Earth as it floated along boggy marshes and around a petit-bourgeois man’s social fall. In “Gravity,” that untethering is literalized within the frame, and the omnidirectional, free movement made possible by the camera’s simulated zero-g trek could mark the next major liberation of camera form.

Why, then, do the film’s long takes feel so resolutely hollow, lacking in all moments even a shred of the sheer awe-inspiring power of Murnau’s significantly more grounded tracks? “Gravity,” far from a step forward in film, so often seems a lateral step into the realm of simulators; the nearest analogue for the film’s increasingly tedious twirls and dips is not another sophisticated cinematic spectacle but rather Disneyland’s Star Tours ride, in which an audience is placed in a superficial and ultimately distancing form of immersion that stresses only the level of digital post-production required to make such shots possible.

“Gravity” is by no means the first film to feature such epic, hollow shots. “Revenge of the Sith” offered an early glimpse into this style of digitally aided long take from its post-scroll opening, which traverses a massive battle in low orbit by zipping alongside the starfighters of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. As with the shots in “Gravity,” the first minute or so of “Revenge of the Sith” spins and floats through space with its subjects, catching half-glimpses of a larger picture while remaining resolutely in close proximity to its main characters, to the point that all the swooning camera movement and CGI sweep of the area is lost in rigidly linear movement.

That linearity seems to be endemic to this new, supposedly unmoored method of following action, as if the freedom offered by digital trickery was too daunting a concept and therefore necessitated its use only in service to narrative momentum. Compare the unrelentingly plotty use of takes in “Gravity” to progress along possible rescue locations to the way that the best classically mounted long takes fill in the spaces outside direct action. Take the opening of “Touch of Evil,” for example. As the camera follows along a busy street tracing the movement of a car with a bomb planted on it, the scene is, directionally speaking, as straightforward as can be. Yet it is the bustle that Welles puts around this action, the almost comical amount of pedestrian traffic and—in the restored version closer to Welles’ original wishes—the cacophony of street noise that gives the shot its power, disrupting the otherwise simple countdown by prolonging the shot’s tension, as well as defining the wild culture of the film’s border town setting.

Indeed, the entire point of a long, roving take is to provide an excess of visual information, not the paucity created by a narrowly focused POV. Another showcase of CGI backgrounds, disguised cuts and visceral movement can be found in last year’s {The Avengers}, during its bloated climax.The shot in question zips along a stretch of battleground, hopping between clusters of superheroes in such a way that spatial relationships between parties is obscured, not clarified, and the single area in which everyone is located starts to resemble separate locations, bridged by the video-game loading screens that are the shot’s blurred, artificial whip-zooms. “Gravity” has more leeway to let some shots confuse as it tries to capture the feeling of being stranded in an endless void, but its constant reorientation toward the next narrative marker leaves in all the discombobulating carnage cause by lacerating space debris but never lingers on the bewilderment of the vacuum.

The means by which those informationally busy frames—all shredded satellites and spacecraft swirling around dwarfed characters—fits within the proud tradition of long takes calling attention to their length and visual complexity. But the braggadocio of Cuarón’s shots is empty, and the po-faced seriousness of “Gravity” ignores that many of the best extended takes poke fun at their own ostentatiousness. “Goodfellas” justifies its over-the-top Copacabana shot by reflecting the POV of its hyper-macho megalomaniacs as they survey the world over which they wield total power. The shot is intoxicating, but not without its reminders that what the idiots really preside over is a sh**y restaurant with bad entertainment. And nothing compares to the tracks and Steadicams of Brian De Palma, whose convoluted long takes are as self-effacing as they are immaculate. This is never more abundantly clear than in the start of “Snake Eyes,” in which De Palma finds himself in a kind of competition with on-screen star Nicolas Cage for the audience’s attention.

And for a film so transparently built around its technical achievement, “Gravity” saps the wonder from its long takes by relying so completely on computers. Even a more subdued use of extended takes, such as the work of Béla Tarr, has a thrill to it that comes from watching a frame upended by a repositioned camera. It’s a thrill that “Gravity,” “Revenge of the Sith” and its ilk completely lack, as the actual difficulty of pulling off a well-choreographed action with only one shot has disappeared. Even films like “Russian Ark” or Cuarón’s own “Children of Men,” which “cheated” by masking composites as a single shot, had a spark to them of actual physical effort. But the illusion no longer mystifies, as one not only knows the trick but finds that the trick itself no longer requires discipline.

Speaking of magic, while watching “Gravity” I was reminded of Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” specifically in the technology that makes the personal and professional schism between the film’s rival magicians irreparable. In the film, one of the dueling illusionists strikes a decisive blow by leaving behind artifice altogether, commissioning a teleportation device that replaces hand-crafted artifice with science. This makes his act undeniably more impressive, but his victory is a cheat, and it rings hollow, just as the more jam-packed frames made possible by CGI pale in comparison to less convoluted but honest long takes. And the magician’s ultimate fate, doomed to constantly sacrifice himself as his machine makes clones, suggests a kind of death of the auteur who practices such technology, showmanship now a function tools can perform automatically without the help of artists. “Gravity” and the like purport to show how much more filmmakers can do with a single shot, but instead they show how the filmmakers have made themselves redundant.