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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Review: Gravity

Gravity (2013): Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón, directed by Alfonso CuarónStarring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris.  Running Time: 90 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            When you really think about it, every human endeavor involving space is an effort of utter insanity, an arrogant assertion that we can, and will, go where no life was meant to exist, or at least where no humans were meant to exist.  We shield ourselves in layers upon layers of plastics, metals, and fabrics, and through a series of controlled explosions, we push off from the relatively tiny rock that forms the basis of our entire collective consciousness and sense of self, striking out into total darkness.  Take a second to ponder that- without the Earth beneath our feet and gravity holding us to it, even such simple assertions as up/down and right/left cease to have any real meaning.  Life may be aggressive in proclaiming its existence, but take it out of its comfort zone, and its strength pales in comparison to the cold, brutal violence of the realm of non-life.  In a direct confrontation, the former has no chance whatsoever against the latter. 

            A reflection on that wondrous and terrifying fact is how Gravity opens- a brief introductory text reminds us of the complete lack of natural life at the altitude at which most satellites and space stations operate.  This then transitions into a silence-inducing image of the great, blue Earth, as a tiny shuttle repairing the majestic Hubble telescope comes into focus.  Our main characters, astronauts Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney) are part of a crew updating and repairing the fabled telescope.  Their mission is ordered to abort when a cloud of space junk (which, for the record, is a very real issue) caused by a detonated Russian satellite begins crashing into other satellites, knocking out communications over a wide swath of the Earth, enlarging the cloud of debris, and setting it on a deadly collision course with the shuttle at about 50,000 miles an hour. 

            The scene of the debris field hitting the shuttle, killing most of the crew, and destroying the Hubble is horrifying, exhilarating, gripping, and awe-inducing, all at once.  There are no sounds of glass shattering, or bodies breaking- as the opening so aptly reminded us, no one can hear you scream in space, because there are no particles to carry sound waves.  We simply see the devastation, silently wrought all around Ryan as Matt tries to calm her via radio.  In one of the film’s best moments, the camera does not move or cut away from the terrible scene before us.  A long, marvelously unedited take pulls us towards Ryan as she spins away from the wreckage, and inserts itself inside her helmet, so we see exactly what she sees- just the Earth, massive and unyielding, spinning in and out her vision.  The take continues, pulling us back out between Ryan and the Earth, and from the audience’s perspective, she seems to be drifting off inexorably towards a faraway arm of the Milky Way.   

            She doesn’t drift too far though- Matt is able to reestablish radio contact and has her use her flashlight to guide him to her.  Left without a ship and with no means of calling for help or reentering Earth’s atmosphere, Matt decides they are to head to the International Space Station to see if there are a) any survivors there as well and b) any reentry vehicles leftover for them to use.  To make this dangerous trial even more risky, he calculates that they have about 90 minutes before the cloud of debris, still orbiting the earth at the same speed as before (according to the laws of inertia), circles back around to their position over the earth. 

            Story-wise, this is no more complicated than any other survival film you care to name, and, like most such movies, has no greater message to deliver other than, “We humans shall always endure.”  And yet, Gravity is one of the best films of the year, a powerful and dynamic cinematic achievement that should definitely be on the receiving end of at least a few Oscar nominations come January.  Why is this, given how simple the story and characters are? 

            Well, as with all movies that utilize a fairly standard storytelling formula, the key lies in its execution.  One thing that makes this movie a lot different from most survival stories, in my opinion, is the setting- space really is a much scarier scary place than anywhere on Earth when you think about just how easily your life can be snuffed out if your suit or helmet is broken, or if your suit/station/ship runs out of oxygen (breathable air is very high on the list of things most people take for granted).  Furthermore, any story in space, by necessity, brings the viewer to a realization of just how tiny we are as individuals compared to our Earth, much less the Solar System as a whole.  Both of these factors give a space movie a bit more emotional and philosophical heft than, say, being shipwrecked on a deserted island (not that that wasn’t difficult too, Mr. Hanks). 

            That said, this is obviously far from the only film to utilize space as the setting for a survival story- the filmmakers openly acknowledge this with ample tributes to 2001, and the voice of “Houston” down on earth is done by Ed Harris from Apollo 13.  What makes Gravity stand out even more, then, is the fact that it not only is a space movie, but is also a visual masterpiece.  The only word I can use to describe the cinematography, lighting, production design, and special effects is gorgeous.  Even the scenes of destruction have an ethereal beauty to them, and are a definitive rebuke to the notion that a camera has to shake to make action seem “real.”  Cuarón knows exactly when to bring us close to the characters, close enough that we can practically hear their hearts beating, and when to back away, letting the full size and scope of the Earth fill the screen, until the characters have disappeared into its vastness.  For only the fourth time in my life (yes, I am counting), I was genuinely glad I saw something in 3D, and plan to see it again on an IMAX screen as soon as possible.  This time, for once, the extra dollars really are worth it. 

            Gravity is more than just hour-and-a-half eye candy though- the technically masterful visuals are complemented perfectly by a wonderfully haunting soundtrack by Steven Price, easily the best of the year thus far.  The knockout punch of the film, however, is Sandra Bullock at a career best.  I don’t need to see this movie a second time to know that she’ll be duking it out with Cate Blanchett over which performance ends up being my favorite by an actress this year.  Carrying whole sections of a film on your own is no small feat, even for the most versatile and veteran of actors, but the way Bullock handles her role, you’d think she does movies like this every year (and I really, really wish she did).  It is the degree to which the audience can really sympathize with, and subsequently root for, Ryan that elevates this movie far beyond other visual pleasantries like Avatar or Life of PiWe completely get her instinctive terror whenever things start to go wrong (unlike Clooney’s 30-year-veteran Matt, this is her first-ever NASA mission).  We know why she feels like giving up sometimes, and that makes her own personal journey, and her ultimate determination to survive, more than enough reason for us to pull for her to make it.  There’s a world of difference between supporting a character we can genuinely understand and connect with, and characters we know we “should” support because “they’re, like, the main character, and stuff.” 

            Of course, almost no film is perfect, and there are plenty of nitpicks that can be had with Gravity.  A tragic backstory comes into play that will work for some, and not for others.  The level of scientific realism is (mostly) pretty solid- the depictions of how scientists operate in space is accurate, the idea of space junk knocking out satellites, as I said before, is a very real thing, and even one bit that seems like a cheap knockoff of Wall-E is also physically possible.  And there is one particular moment where the usual “anything that could possible go wrong WILL go wrong” rule goes a touch too far.  While I openly acknowledge these flaws, I posit that they are far from enough to ruin the experience of seeing the movie, nor do I believe that they lower the film’s quality as a whole when separated from the immediate sensation of watching it on the big screen.  Some people will agree with me, and others will disagree, but regardless of what you ultimately think of the movie after the fact, Gravity is an incredible, once-in-a-blue-moon experience, and an absolute you-have-to-see-this-NOW sort of film.  Once you finish this review, you need to get in your car, and get your butt into the nearest IMAX theater. 


-Noah Franc   

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