Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is one of my absolute favorite films of the last ten years, a masterpiece of visual style and world-building that endlessly rewards repeated viewings. Of everything I’ve seen in recent years only Tree of Life comes anywhere close to matching the sheer fucking audacity that Cuaron brought to the screen in that movie. I still remember the first time I saw the jaw-dropping opening scene (here it is on Vimeo), with the long, unbroken take as Theo Faron (Clive Owen) leaves the cafe having just learned that the youngest person on the planet has died, and the way the camera follows him out and then swoops around him to catch the bomb blast, then the stark cut to the white on black title card. Astounding. There’s no crawl, no voiceover; everything you need to know about this world is effortlessly conveyed in those first two minutes — it’s pure visual storytelling, fluid, potent, goddamn beautiful.
It was in Children of Men that Cuaron really began to experiment with increasingly long, absurdly complicated single-take shots (exemplified by the six minute blood-on-the-lens street fighting sequence, which is easily the most visceral battle sequence I’ve ever seen). It’s an approach that some have criticized as show-offy but for me it defines his visual style, as every shot is infused with a sort of seemless fluidity. I mean, life is single-take, right?
It sounds like Cuaron is pushing the practice to even more extreme ends in his new film Gravity. The film’s executive producer, Chris DeFarla, has said that Gravity‘s opening shot will be a single 17-minute take and that many of its shots will last six, eight or ten minutes. Hell, the average shot will be 45 seconds, which is geologic time by today’s standards. Not coincidentally, the cinematographer is Emmanual Lubezki, who did Tree of Life. The film stars George Clooney as the lone survivor of a doomed space mission, and the obvious precursor in both tone and subject matter is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It opens in November. Can’t wait to see it.
In other news, today I learned that Cuaron’s contribution to the Harry Potter canon, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the series, was the lowest grossing of all the Harry Potter movies. Ah well, there’s no accounting for taste. (And “lowest grossing” in this case is relative, since the thing raked in $800 million.)