The critical and commercial disappointment of 1998’s “Great Expectations,” his contempo reimagining of the Dickens novel starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, must have left Alfonso Cuaron in a mood to experiment. Retreating from Hollywood and returning to his native Mexico, the director emerged in 2001 with “Y tu mama tambien,” a sexy, hilarious and slyly philosophical road movie that marked the first appearance of his signature technique: the long take.
“(‘Great Expectations’) was all ‘cutty,’ and each shot was very well composed and very stylized,” Cuaron’s longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki told Variety. “And in “Y tu mama tambien” we started to try to control less and find more.” Shots played out at a duration exceeding anything the filmmakers had previously attempted, allowing conversations to run without a single cut.
Sidling up to the three main characters with a lazy handheld intimacy, Lubezki’s camera could just as easily drift away to show the viewer some mundane, atmospheric detail — women preparing food in the back room of a restaurant, a herd of pigs wandering away from a campsite — a technique that simultaneously heightened the reality of the story and suggested that there was much, much more going on around it.
The device has been a staple of Cuaron’s work ever since, placed in service of a striking diversity of stories and genres. It even reared its head in 2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” in which the director boldly imprinted his personality onto one of Hollywood’s most successful — and most risk-averse — franchises.
The technique reached its apotheosis — and, before “Gravity,” its most terrifying immediacy — in Cuaron’s 2006 science-fiction thriller “Children of Men.” Working again with Lubezki and for the first time with visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, Cuaron achieved a gripping sense of heightened reality, orchestrating one explosive long-take setpiece after another (the longest of which lasted nine minutes) that made the film’s wartorn futuristic landscape seem all the more palpably, unpredictably real.
In the unbroken 13-minute sequence that opens “Gravity,” Cuaron, Lubezki and Webber have increased the difficulty exponentially, maneuvering the camera around the spacewalkers as if it, too, is weightless. As the movie continues, the filmmakers even add a new wrinkle, which Lubezki calls “elastic shots”: Takes that go from very wide shots to medium closeups, then segue seamlessly into a point-of-view shot, so the viewer is seeing the action through the character’s eyes, right down to the glare and reflections on a helmet visor.
“The shot goes from objective to subjective and again widens out to be an objective shot again,” explains Lubezki. “We use that throughout the movie a couple of times. It’s very immersive and immediate and it makes you really go into the world and the head of the characters.”
The result is comparable to, without in any way resembling, what James Cameron and Ang Lee achieved with “Avatar” and “Life of Pi,” respectively: a fully convincing, almost entirely computer-generated simulacrum of an otherworldly realm that blurs the lines between cinematography, digital effects and performance. And like those directors, Cuaron uses 3D in subtle, non-gimmicky ways to deepen our sense of immersion in the film’s universe.
Which, in the case of “Gravity,” happens to be the actual universe.
(David S. Cohen contributed to this report.)