“Silent Running” (1972)
While initially seen as something of a critical and commercial disappointment, "Silent Running," directed by visual effects maestro Douglas Trumbull, has proven hugely influential in the last few years, with the filmmakers behind "Moon," "WALL-E," and "Oblivion" all citing the film as a big-time reference point. And when it comes to "Gravity," it's easy to see where Cuarón and company borrowed from it: the film features basically one human character (Bruce Dern) who charts a deadly mission through the cosmos (in a bit of visual effects derring-do originally cooked up during Trumbull's tenure on Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"). Like "Gravity," "Silent Running" was largely heralded for its visual effects, even though there's a character study and a performance at the heart of the movie that is every bit as awe-inspiring as Sandra Bullock's role in "Gravity." After orders come down that the experimental research vessel Dern is working on is to be detonated, he refuses, and charts a course further into the cosmos. Unlike Bullock in "Gravity," Dern is fully equipped in a giant spaceship, complete with an EPCOT-like geodesic dome that houses a greenhouse with a number of vital plants and animals essential for earth's recovery, but like "Gravity" it's fascinating to watch someone alone amongst the stars (unless you count Dern's robotic buddies, to whom he gradually starts assigning human names and characteristics after referring to them initially as "Drone 1," etc.). "Gravity" and "Silent Running" also share a similar intelligence: even though they were sold as sci-fi spectacles, they're really quite brainy. "Silent Running" was tapping into ideas about ecology and environmentalism that seem far ahead of their time, while "Gravity" presents ideas about humanity, evolution, and religion that are far more sophisticated than its "hey, isn't space scary?" marketing roll-out would suggest. Though yes, space is damn scary too. Thankfully, Cuarón knew what to take from "Silent Running" and what to leave behind, which is why we're not saddled with any goopy Joan Baez songs in 2013.
“Vanishing Point” (1971)
Director Richard C. Sarafian passed away last month, but his 1971 counter culture classic, “Vanishing Point” lives on, and having had its initially tepid critical response overturned in subsequent years, it now burns rubber as beautifully as ever. The minimalist high-speed road movie tells the spare story of a car delivery driver, Kowalski (Barry Newman), engaged in a breakneck, impossible bet that he can get a certain white 1970 Dodge Challenger (just a gorgeous car) all the way from Colorado to San Francisco in under 15 hours. Fueled by amphetamines that keep exhaustion at bay, he tears through small towns and desert landscapes alike, eventually attracting not just the notice of the police, but of locals listening to a popular radio DJ (Cleavon Little) who creates a kind of folk myth around Kowalski as “the last American hero.” It’s a film Cuarón directly nods to, not just by name-checking it as an influence, but even in the naming of George Clooney’s character (Matt Kowalski), and the extraordinary beauty and wide-open-space deep perspective that Sarafian and DP John A. Alonzo find in the photography is certainly echoed by Cuarón and DP Emmanuel Lubezki. But in other regards it’s a very different film—where the external resonance of "Gravity" mostly comes from reading it as a sort of ontological allegory, “Vanishing Point” feels far more political; a nihilist snapshot of a broken and uncertain America, in which the hippy hope Woodstock represented has dissipated even while the Vietnam war drags on, and in which the only real choice you have is between a slow death by submission to societal norms, or a fast, fiery premature one, in a brief blaze of glory. The sometimes breezy interludes in which Kowalski encounters people on his odyssey, including a naked girl riding a motorbike in the desert and an old man who catches snakes to barter to a local religious cult, can’t distract from the fact that ultimately it feels like a film about the end of hope, in which the freedom offered by wide open spaces and roads that lie like ribbons on the horizon, is illusory because no matter how great the distance, you can’t ever get away from yourself.
The Playlist's 5:
“Children of Men” (2006)
A film that put us through the emotional wringer to the degree that we repaired to the nearest pub immediately afterward for a stiff brandy, Cuarón’s last film, “Children of Men” is a totally different animal from “Gravity,” and yet both are recognizably from the same authorial sensibility. While we, like everyone else, loved “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and judged “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to be by some distance the best Potter movie, nothing had quite prepared us for the sheer mastery and control of Cuarón’s adaptation of the PD James novel. A gloriously textured, philosophically compelling movie, the dystopian society it imagines, in which no woman has given birth for over 17 years, may be bleak, but the film’s fierce intelligence, even its anger, means it’s never dull. From a technical standpoint as well, we can trace frequent Cuarón DP, the great Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning, fluid work on “Gravity” to several touchpoint scenes here, from the glorious long handheld shot, played almost silently, as Theo (Clive Owen) and Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) leave the war-torn hospital clutching a certain precious bundle, to the now-famous moving car sequence that required various rigs, wings and prayers to achieve. So his and Cuarón’s fondness for long-take action, and their willingness to push back technical boundaries to achieve that vision, were already well in evidence prior to “Gravity.” But perhaps what’s most impressive to us, and what makes us admire Cuarón as much as we do is that all of this technical gimcrackery is only ever put in service of the story; he never sets the cart before the horse in that regard. While “Gravity” will and should exceed it in terms of box office receipts and mainstream success, for sheer storytelling confidence, emotional resonance and tour de force filmmaking it’s hard for us to believe that anything the director will do in future might surpass this masterpiece.
Like "Gravity," "Moon" is a somewhat high-concept sci-fi project whose central conceit is one of deceptive simplicity. An astronaut, stationed on the moon (an all-time best Sam Rockwell, which is saying something because we love Sam Rockwell) and working for a shadowy organization that cultivates energy from the sun, makes a startling discovery right before he is scheduled to return home: after getting involved in an accident with his moon rover, he is met by a man who appears to be his exact double. Since Rockwell is the only actor to ever appear on screen (even if occasionally in duplicate), it's kind of a one-man show like "Gravity." And like "Gravity," too, one of the major supporting roles is less played than it is voiced—Rockwell has a robot assistant, in a less-than-subtle nod to "Silent Running," and the robot is voiced by Kevin Spacey. In "Gravity," "Mission Control" is voiced by Ed Harris, in a similarly blatant nod to "Apollo 13." Both movies tease existential notions of humanity and identity, with Rockwell unsure of his place in the universe after finding out that there's someone (maybe more than one) just like him, while Sandra Bullock, during her space odyssey, has to come to terms with the singularity of her death; that no one will know or necessarily care too much if she drifts forever into the cold blackness. Both grapple with similar notions but in opposite ways, and both seem to have been inspired by similar material (including, of course, "Silent Running," and '2001'). While "Moon" isn't as interested in visceral thrills as "Gravity," and probably cost as much as George Clooney's trailer, it still grapples with similar thematic concerns, and even now it offers the unexpected whoosh of watching a movie that you know will be seen, at some point, as a certifiable classic.