Few films in recent memory have affected me as profoundly as Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity. Walking out of the cinema, I was absolutely awestruck. Giddy, thrilled far beyond my high expectations, and bursting with a slew of emotions, I knew that what I had just witnessed was something special, perhaps even unprecedented in the history of film. An original, technical marvel that took cinema-goers by surprise, the pureness of Cuarón's creation was regarded by many as a breath of fresh air for the film industry. Even the most hardened of critics could not debate the power of this achievement as it opened in August to unanimous critical acclaim, praising the film's direction, visual effects, acting, screenplay, cinematography, sound design and even 3D. "Believe the hype!" many proclaimed and, indeed, audiences did, blasting the film into the box-office stratosphere. Truly, Gravity was a forceful, physical, cinematic experience to be reckoned with.
I could easily go on a lengthy diatribe about the film's technical mastery but it might be just as effective to say that Gravity is a feat of cinematic storytelling. Each of the film's elements, complex in their own right, merge perfectly to tell a suprisingly minimalistic story: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a brilliant medical engineer, is being accompanied by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) on her first spacewalk. When a Russian missile strikes a defunct satellite and hurls a cloud of debris their way, Stone and Kowalsky are disconnected from their space shuttle Explorer and lose contact with Earth. Helplessly adrift and fighting against all odds to survive, the pair must use their wits to improvise an escape plan, the stakes growing higher with each breath of oxygen and pass of the destructive debris cloud.
Vital to this harrowing, visceral experience is the film's sound design. Contrary to what we've come to expect from Hollywood sci-fi films, Gravity elects to portray space as a silent vacuum, ensuring that the only sounds we hear are those we could expect the astronauts to hear themselves: muffled vibrations from their spacesuits' impacts on the shuttle and station hulls, distant explosions and creaks heard from within the International Space Station, etc. While Cuarón might have alternatively kept the film silent, as numerous, less enthusiastic critics point out, the director instead chose to fill the void with a heavily electronic, nontraditional score. Brought on to construct this unique soundscape was young composer Steven Price, originally hired as a music editor on the film. Best known for his work on 2011's Attack the Block and 2013's The World's End, the relative newcomer (he's actually worked in the industry since the late 90's) tackles this daunting task head-on and manages to create a distinct and intense sound for space. A near perfect marriage of inventive electronic work and traditional scoring techniques, Gravity is deserving of every bit of praise it has received.
Slowly building from silence, the bleak "Above Earth" introduces us to the sounds of Gravity and employs an ominous, rising two-note synth motif that pervades the score. As soon as the listener becomes familiar with it, however, the sound is abruptly sucked away into nothingness and we behold the film's beautiful opening shot of Earth. Many of the film's cues employ this jolting technique, often signaling a scene change, a particularly startling effect, or a transition into the vacuum of space. As he creates Gravity's soundscape, Price is exceedingly mindful of his surroundings. This is especially true during the film's nerve-wracking destruction sequences. His music is noticeably influenced by where the camera is positioned, how it moves through the environment, and how objects in that environment move in relation to it. In lieu of the expected sound mix, the composer must also represent musically things that would normally have sounds attached to them. An explosion of a shuttle's wing, for instance, might incur a deep pulsation or an abrupt chord change, while a piece of spinning debris whizzing past us might result in a flurry of undulating strings. Indeed, the score's second track, "Debris", is a perfect example of this approach. Accompanying the film's initial sequence of destruction, "Debris" is a harrowing, chaotic thrill-ride of chopping string ostinatos, aggressive sound effects, and Gravity's ever-forboding, two-note synth motif.
"The Void", though a subtler affair, is no less effective. Over a bed of deep, pulsating electronics, a formidable ensemble of growling strings and synths create a muted landscape that again revolves around the two-note, Gravity motif. Tense throughout and accented by a human voice toward its conclusion, the heartbeat-like rhythms of "The Void" give way to a similar piece in "Atlantis". Though it may lack the sense of movement of "The Void", "Atlantis" still succeeds in creating a subtle rhythm of unease. In its last minute, it also features a grave cello rendition of Dr. Ryan Stone's theme, which increasingly becomes the film's primary identity as the score develops. At this point, it would be pertinent to say a word or two about that theme. What is remarkable about Gravity is how, in the midst of all its dazzling, visual carnage, there is an undeniable, beating human heart. Without much choice of who to empathize with, the audience quickly latches onto Dr. Ryan Stone, the film's main character. She represents an anchor in this hellish, unthinkable scenario and, accordingly, she also serves as the anchor for the film's score. Her theme offers reprieve from Price's more taxing, tension-inducing material, leading to beautiful expressions of humanity amidst great peril. There is a wonderfully constructed arc in her music, as it moves from the more drawn-out and subtle to the more concrete and forceful as the score progresses and the character discovers her agency. In harmony with the film, Dr. Stone's theme also guides the listener through a whole host of emotions, from sadness to loss to empowerment to triumph.
The standout track "Don't Let Go" is a quintessential example of this arc, taking us through numerous emotions in just eleven minutes time. It begins with a beautiful rendition of Dr. Stone's theme on electric cello and ethereal vocals before plunging us again into chaos, complete with violent trumpet flairs. Changing gears to moving, emotional drama in its final minutes, the cue then comes full circle with another, sorrowful rendition of Dr. Stone's theme. Following this, we experience a gentle, pensive moment by way of the soft piano notes of "Airlock" (accompanying one of the film's more unabashedly symbolic images) and a similarly tender piece in "ISS", which slowly reprises the underlying progressions of Dr. Stone's theme.
In Cuarón's space-thriller, though, disaster is rarely far off when things begin to look up. "Fire" and "Parachute", two of the more fast-paced cues on the album, force us back into the anxiety-inducing realm of "Debris" for another sequence of disaster and destruction. Everything that can go wrong does, as Dr. Stone hangs onto a swinging Soyuz module for dear life and the music violently rattles and dives with her. The effective but unremarkable atmospheric piece entitled "In the Blind" follows "Parachute". It largely relies on dense, growling static and deep synth pulses to create despair. The gentle piano notes and satellite beeps of "Aurora Borealis" highlight Dr. Stone at her most vulnerable point, leading into the tranquility of "Aningaaq" as she consigns herself to her inevitable fate. There's a soothing peace and a comforting finality to this beautiful, restrained musical moment.
The brief "Soyuz" features celestial female voices and leads nicely into the album's stunning concluding tracks, "Tiangong", "Shenzou", and "Gravity". The pay-off contained within these three tracks is simply enormous, making for one of the most rewarding album conclusions of the year. "Tiangong" starts things off with a beautifully textured performance of Dr. Stone's theme, which really comes into its own here and dominates the album's conclusion. Determined and moving, "Tiangong" dishes up chills at the two and half minute range. Midway through the cue, we are thrust once more into the void of space with Dr. Stone, but the grimness, chaos, and danger is now supplanted by determination and a tremendous sense of forward movement. There is no turning back now. "Shenzou" picks up where the previous cue leaves off as Tiangong hurtles towards Earth's atmosphere. While many argue that the final track, "Gravity", is the best piece on the album, I say differently. "Shenzou" is not only the best cue on the album, it is one of the best, most damn inspirational musical moments of the year. We feel the heat of the earth's atmosphere through a hellfire of static underlay, we experience the destruction of Tiangong as it is torn apart in a thrilling, fiery electronic display, and blasting triumphantly above it all is Dr. Stone's theme in full force. Never before have I teared up in a theater from witnessing something so awe-inspiring as this. Truly, "Shenzou" is a triumphant piece of work. Concluding the film is "Gravity", a glorious, comparatively straightforward performance of Dr. Stone's theme. A celebration of the main character in every way, "Gravity" is moving and victorious, signaling, as Steven Price states, a "rebirth" for the character and a well-earned catharsis for the audience.
Gravity is an immersive, original piece of work from a composer who I cannot wait to hear more from. While an initial cold-listen might lead one to conclude that Gravity is a largely inaccessible score, a viewing of the film brings the score's intricacies and wonderfully-constructed narrative to the forefront. For those who simply cannot accept an alternative to standard orchestral fare, it might indeed be hard to digest, but Gravity is completely worth it for its innovative aspects and magnificent payoff. Without a doubt, Gravity is one of the best scores of the year.