TELLURIDE, Colo. – Usually I’m winding down on Sunday at Telluride, but this is the first year I’ll be staying until Tuesday, meaning a full day tomorrow of casually catching up on things I missed. So today, a much-needed respite: I slept in. After Fox Searchlight and Sony Classics’ separate soirees for their films and talent last night, and particularly after a ride like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” it didn’t hurt to charge the batteries a little more.
Cuarón’s film had its North American premiere last night at the Werner Herzog Theater with the director and his son/co-screenwriter Jonás on hand. Probably the most eager crowd of the fest so far, given the raves that burst out of Venice upon the film’s world premiere last week, were thickly lined up well in advance. Before the screening, Jonás said that the intent was indeed to produce a roller-coaster ride, and boy is it ever. But something that struck me while experiencing this one-woman-show was how much of a powerful double feature it would be with J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost,” also programmed at Telluride this year.
Both films deal in separate thematic hues. “All is Lost” is very much a metaphor for economic crisis and downfall. “Gravity” is largely about connectivity. But both films are ultimately about rebirth, each packing similar visual metaphors to convey the idea by the end of their separate narratives. (Though in the case of the much more abstract “All is Lost,” you could argue its denouement in more somber terms if you wanted.)
“Gravity” was born out of a script Jonás had been working on, a tight desert-set narrative with very few elements presenting a constant state of tension. He went to his father for notes and Alfonso decided he wanted Jonás to help him write something similar set in space. “We wanted to explore through the ride of our character the challenges that are presented in someone’s life and how in overcoming them you can reach a catharsis and a kind of rebirth,” Jonás said following the screening. “In a way, there’s no better setting than space for challenges. It’s a very perilous setting; anything that goes wrong is really bad.”
The same could be said of the deep sea, and in “All is Lost,” Chandor cooks up a meticulous study full of behavioral minutiae. Robert Redford, like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity,” is without connection to the civilized world. In the case of “Gravity,” that’s a commentary on a character with a trauma in her past who wants to disconnect from the world around her. In the case of “All is Lost,” it says something about self-reflection at the end of one’s life.
“Somewhere in my mind it was Robert Redford representing people from the baby boomer generation who had all this promise and all this prosperity and what came from it,” Chandor told me on Friday. “And great things did. But at the end of your life you always question.”
So if “All is Lost” is working in the macro, “Gravity” is a bit more in the mirco. Chandor’s study is of a character we know precious little about, so something of a Rorschach is the result. In “Gravity,” the Cuaróns are presenting a character with defined emotional baggage, “drifting and following her own inertia into the void, getting further and further away from Earth, where life and human connection exist as we know it,” Alfonso said last night. Bullock’s character quite literally lives inside her own bubble — her astronaut helmet — and through the turmoil she encounters in that void, she experiences a rebirth that Alfonso called “a new knowledge.”
Both are powerful films, and both in their separate ways are technical marvels. “All is Lost” was largely filmed in the Rosarito, Mexico water tank set at Baja Film Studios that was used for “Titanic,” among other movies, thrashing the 77-year-old Redford around a tiny boat. For “Gravity,” technology had to be invented in order for Cuarón’s vision of long, drawn-out takes with Bullock in a painstakingly realized state of weightlessness. The whole thing was “a big act of miscalculation,” Alfonso said of taking on the challenge, yielding a four-and-a-half year production. Chandor, meanwhile, was more modest in his vision, keeping the camera level with Redford and almost never pulling back to any sort of omniscient place of observation to give the effect of being there with this character.
And, as you would expect, sound is absolutely crucial to telling both stories. “All is Lost” is full of all the aural elements of the ocean but it also weaves Redford’s breaths into the mix as the character is mostly silent throughout the film. “Gravity,” meanwhile, is very careful to present the fact established in that old tagline for Ridley Scott’s “Alien”: In space, no one can hear you scream. Nor can they hear a 20,000 mile-per-hour wave of debris tear through satellites, space stations and shuttles. Bullock’s breathing is also crucial to an overall mix that is full of tension.
Chandor is conservative with Alex Ebert’s score. Cuarón lays Steven Price’s on. Those decisions certainly affect how the emotion of each film registers, but both movies leave a sense of Nietzschean affirmation in the end. Redford is truly magnetic, every glance meaningful, his visage telling the entire story. Bullock experiences a powerful arc, as physically embattled in her role as Redford. And both, absolutely, will be in the hunt for awards recognition at the end of the year.
“Gravity” arrives in theaters on Oct. 4. “All is Lost” won’t be far behind on Oct. 18. Consider seeing them as a double feature.