Another one of Cuaron’s key accomplishments is the bravura camerawork throughout the film. He could have settled for standard camera setups with multi-angle coverage and cuts, but instead designed some fascinating one-take scenes that will be studied in film schools for decades to come. One scene finds the protagonists traveling by car until they encounter an angry mob and quickly retreat in reverse gear, which doesn’t sound all that special except that the camera appears to be in the car, constantly moving from passenger to passenger to capture their dialogue at the right times as well as all of the action outside of the car. Every seat in the car was occupied, leaving even less room for maneuverability and more room for amazement. It’s reminiscent of a similar scene in War of the Worlds, but seemingly more real and thus more impressive.
The showcase one-take scene finds Owen and his compatriots struggling through a warzone as violence erupts all around them, including their temporary apprehension by pursuers, their harrowing separation, and Owen’s valiant effort to find his way back to them as he enters and climbs a building teeming with refugees under fire from military tanks. Blood gets splattered on the lens near the latter part of the lengthy run and stays there, enforcing the concept that we’re right there in the thick of things. Like this scene, much of the film was shot with handheld cameras, giving it an immediacy that forcefully involves the audience. The camerawork is completely stunning and worth the price of admission alone, but thankfully the story supports the effort as well.
The script defies expectations at every turn. Long-lost loves usually lead to rekindled flames, but this reconciliation takes a surprising turn. Good guys become bad guys, keeping us off-balance as we try to determine the resolution. The protagonist doesn’t spend time bemoaning his past to gain our sympathy, doesn’t befriend anyone or have any emotional breakthroughs. The final goal is clearly stated, but its resulting outcome isn’t explicitly defined. In short, there’s enough ambiguity and peripheral information that the overarching story feels like glorious, messy reality rather than sterile, linear fiction.
High concepts have a high probability of misfire, but Cuaron has perfected his vision of the future by focusing entirely on the reality rather than the fantasy. In turn, he has delivered a captivating, thrilling tale that transcends its source material and approaches instant classic status.
Written by Caballero Oscuro