Sandra Bullock tumbles through space, gasps for air, fumbles with knobs and dials in one capsule after another. She’s a stranded astronaut and all she wants is to get back down to earth, because this is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and it has a very “A→B” narrative. Not that I’m complaining! No, I found the film’s directness refreshing, especially coming in the wake of so many overloaded, smart-ass blockbusters. Gravity staunchly refuses to cut away from its astronauts’ ordeal: no subplots, no flashbacks, no extraneous reminders of life on earth (despite Cuarón having been pressured to include all of the above). The film adheres strictly to the Aristotelian unities. It’s economical, runs a fleet 91 minutes, and never strays from the point. This can, however, make Gravity feel a bit sterile, a bit lacking in personality or idiosyncrasy. Certainly it doesn’t help that the film’s one real attempt at shading in its heroine’s background—the story of her dead daughter—reads as a screenwriting expedient, necessary for the sake of thematic coherence and audience identification. (Nor does it help that by contrast, Cuarón’s previous film Children of Men was bursting with personality and had some of the most lived-in production design I’ve ever seen.)
But then again, frustrated as I am by the banality of its human element, perhaps it’s best that Gravity keeps us focused instead on its urgent, squirm-inducing spectacle. The two astronauts float with palpable momentum through a digital recreation of outer space, frighteningly plausible in its silence and vacuity. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera follows them, unhinged from physical realities, often in these long-take loop-the-loops that leave behind our earthly definitions of up and down. The cumulative effect, at least where I’m concerned, is disorienting, mildly transporting, and more than a little terrifying. This, the film seems to say, is life in a human body: fragile, tiny against the vastness of space, possible here only with technological aid. (Indeed, the many womblike capsules put in me mind of the complex production process that created Gravity itself in the first place.) The film’s at its strongest when the two stars—tossed this way and that by the laws of physics—act as vehicles for this blend of awe and horror, this incidental profundity. It’s no “game changer,” but it does a graceful job, even within a preexisting genre framework, of situating us in the universe.
A mere two weeks after Gravity was released into American theaters, All Is Lost followed. Like Gravity, it’s a survival thriller plotted around its protagonist’s methodical execution of one minor task after another. Like Gravity, it takes place entirely in a void (this time, the Indian Ocean) with no one else around. The biggest differences between the two are that All Is Lost has only a single character who only speaks three or four lines in the whole film and is surrounded by very real water rather than a digital substitute. Consequently, the story’s told through star Robert Redford’s weathered face and septuagenarian body. His past life, his present trials, his unclear future: writer-director J.C. Chandor lets us glean them all from the physical evidence onscreen. I can guess, for example, that Redford’s unnamed protagonist must have had money and some measure of power back when he lived on terra firma, as well as a desire for Walden-esque solitude. I mean, here he is in the most desolate corner of the globe, alone on a yacht and with the expertise to sail it. (Redford’s own past—as a one-time matinee idol, Oscar winner, and Sundance kid—reverberates through the film, giving an impression that this weary old man was once a ruggedly handsome golden boy.)
“Our Man,” as he’s called in the credits, begins the film with a fantasy of self-sufficiency. But it’s a fantasy All Is Lost will spent the rest of its running time incrementally deflating. It’s like a Boy’s Own maritime adventure turned bitterly to farce. Beginning with an assault by a giant container full of tennis shoes, every cosmic irony that could present itself does, and while it’s grueling to see him threatened by storms, sharks, saltwater, starvation, etc., I nonetheless found plenty of gallows humor in Redford’s stony reactions. On the one side is this nonplussed old man; on the other, the entire ocean. The imbalance is too severe not to laugh. He fusses over the practicalities of survival, and these give the movie its narrative spine, but each one’s as pointless as the last. Whereas Gravity has a very “where there’s life there’s hope” outlook, All Is Lost is as cynical as water is wet, and I appreciate that. Its grim philosophy is what keeps the movie from being just a stunt, an Oulipo-style challenge self-assigned and completed. Many of All Is Lost’s thrills are of-the-moment, superficial and sensory, but its downward thrust lingered with me for days after viewing.
So I wonder, with two such similar movies released within the same month of 2013, is narrative minimalism becoming a new mainstream trend? My mind goes back to other survival movies of the past 2-3 years: Buried, Frozen, 127 Hours, The Grey, and Life of Pi. Wildly disparate in quality, they (like Gravity and All Is Lost) all follow similar patterns: a routine is disrupted by disaster, leaving protagonists in isolated locations and extreme circumstances. Obviously these films exploit the same collective anxieties, whether it’s being cut off in an increasingly connected world or suffering the wrath of an environment we’ve supposedly dominated. But going beyond pop psychology, I’m interested in how these films choose to represent their respective crises. Life of Pi, for example, is a prestigious literary adaptation, suffused with magical realism and broken up by a (needless) framing story. The Grey is interspersed with revealing flashbacks and, as its frostbitten roughnecks get devoured one by one, becomes a kind of lupine slasher movie. 127 Hours not only lets its hero monologue to a camcorder, but also flies off into flashbacks, fantasies, and hyperkinetic montages.
What then of Gravity and All Is Lost with their self-imposed narrative limitations—their refusal to show anything more than a few minutes either before disaster strikes or after survival’s assured? First, I should explain that I think of this as not an automatic virtue but a neutral storytelling choice. I don’t think Gravity’s refusal to include a shot of mission control or Bullock’s daughter makes it superior to the above movies, nor that All Is Lost’s even greater abstinence makes it inherently better or braver than Gravity. I do, however, think that this bent toward minimalism carries with it connotations of “artiness.” By forcing the audience to fill in certain blanks, Cuarón and Chandor avoid resorting to “Hollywood” shortcuts and instead pare away redundant information. All of which has a few consequences: 1) It forces us to stay engaged with the life-or-death situation at hand, leaving us (like the characters) no in-movie recourse away from the stress or the spectacle. 2) It helps prevent the movie from getting cluttered with any more ideas, images, or tones than it needs. 3) Going along with #2, this strategy coupled with that “A→B” plotting keeps the films single-minded and tends to prevent much variety from seeping into the experience. Whether these tendencies are damaging is up for debate; I believe it varies, often within each individual film. But I’ll be very curious to see how many future large-scale projects follow in these two movies’ minimalist stead.