Alfonso Cuarón’s hidden joke in his 2013 sci-fi film ‘Gravity’
“If you want to keep on being relevant as a director, I think you have to embrace the times.” – Alfonso Cuarón
Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón has established himself as one of the biggest names in the film industry with brilliant efforts like Children of Men and Roma. Over the course of his illustrious career, he has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards and has won four of them. He is in the record books for being nominated in six different categories, an achievement he shares with icons such as Walt Disney and George Clooney.
In 2013 Cuarón released his sci-fi thriller Gravity, a project which stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as American astronauts who are stranded in space after their Space Shuttle gets destroyed in mid-orbit. It is a fantastic mediation on the terrifying isolation, solitude and the ingenuity of the human spirit in the most difficult of times. The film won a staggering seven Academy Awards, including wins for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects.
Cuarón injects CGI into the language of cinema in such a way that it adds to the cinematic experience instead of taking anything away from the grammar of visual narrative. Although the plot is deceptively simple, it’s the allegory that counts. Cuarón masterfully transposes the age-old tale of human survival to outer space, challenging the preconceived notions of human life from a fresh perspective.
“We shot space scenes in a sort of virtual-reality box that had the characters’ environments projected on the walls,” the filmmaker once said. “We animated for maybe two-and-a-half years before we started shooting the actors. Then we shot the film—and then the poor animators had to start from scratch because they had to base their final animations on what was shot.”
He added, “It was a nightmare for them. They would make stuff and I’d say, ‘Yeah, but that looks like they’re standing at a bar, not floating in space.’ We had a physicist explain the laws of zero gravity and zero resistance. After three months, the animators got the concept and it became second nature.”
In the film, there is a scene where the veteran astronaut Kowalski (played by Clooney) flies very close to the camera and astronauts holding a boom mic and a movie camera appear to be reflected in his helmet visor. This is hilarious because the entire premise of Gravity is how terribly alone Kowalski and Stone (Sandra Bullock) are while desperately trying to get back to their home planet.
It later transpired that Cuarón added the reflections with CGI as an “inside joke” in order to make it look like the scene was actually filmed in space. Despite being intended as a joke, the scene does end up becoming an interesting site of transgressive meta-narrative where the fourth wall is broken. In outer space.