October 03, 2013

Gravity

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Gravity

SCIENCE FICTION:

United States/United Kingdom, 2013

U.S. Release Date:

2013-10-04

Running Length:

1:30

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Profanity, Disturbing Images)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Director:

Alfonso Cuaron

Screenplay:

Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron

Cinematography:

Emmanuel Lubezki

Music:

Steven Price

U.S. Distributor:

Warner Brothers

Subtitles:

none


Wow.

If ever there was a case to be made for 3-D as a valuable cinematic tool, Alfonso Cuaron has made it. Put alongside Avatar and Hugo (with honorable mentions going to Prometheus and Life of Pi), Gravity shows the power of 3-D when applied effectively and with vision. The immersive quality is undeniable and in some ways indefinable. Cuaron's stated goal with Gravity is to put the viewer in space with the characters and he accomplishes this. The film will lose something if viewed in conventional 2-D and it will lose more when shrunk for home viewing. This is a review and a rating for Gravity on a big screen in 3-D. That's the way Cuaron wants it to be seen. That's how he envisioned it, developed it, and filmed it. Hollywood has so badly overused and abused 3-D, turning it into a gimmicky cash cow, that it's almost shocking to acknowledge what it can add to the theatrical experience when employed by a director who knows what he's doing. Gravity isn't just a movie; it's almost transformative, and the visceral element is enhanced by the 3-D.

Cuaron's camera speaks more loudly than his screenplay. He opens Gravity with a 20-minute "unbroken" shot (following in the footsteps of something similar in Children of Men) that follows the two characters, astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), on a spacewalk as they complete improvements to the Hubble Telescope. The camera dips and dives and moves in close to give a sense of what it's like to be in orbit. Earth is a big, beautiful globe gleaming in the background. The accident, when it occurs, is shocking and brutal. As an untethered Ryan somersaults through space, the camera moves into her helmet and provides a first person point-of-view of her confusion. (Note: those sensitive to motion sickness may have a problem with this scene.) Throughout the entire production, Cuaron successfully strives to marry intimacy with the vastness of space. The 3-D is never excessive or superfluous. It's perfectly pitched for each scene.

The narrative is a fairly straightforward exploration of the difficulties faced by a woman alone fighting for survival. Although Clooney and Bullock make a nice pair, they are soon separated and the movie stays with Bullock as she battles seemingly impossible odds. Stranded in space with her only obvious means of escape smashed, she must confront new challenges and dangers - a fire, oxygen depletion, a lack of fuel, a storm of satellite debris - with only the simplest of goals: going home. She can see it but reaching it alive is a herculean task.

The level of tension is high. After a playful, relaxed first fifteen minutes, the movie never lets up (except during a brief interlude) and, although only 1 1/2 hours in length, the intensity is draining. (That's a good thing.) Ryan goes from bad situations to worse ones; it's almost as if Cuaron delights in using her to illustrate the relentless nature of Murphy's Law. In terms of getting the basics of space survival right, Gravity deserves a place alongside Apollo 13. While that film is fact-based and this one is fictional, the details here are sufficiently precise to generate an undeniable sense of verisimilitude. Gravity is true science fiction, not watered-down or transformed into space opera or fantasy.

Sandra Bullock's contribution could easily be overlooked when one considers how much CGI is employed to craft the film's final look. Her performance here, however, is easily the best of her career, outstripping her overrated Oscar-winning role in The Blind Side. She runs the gamut of emotions from relief to despair and in many scenes must convey her internal state without dialogue and with the camera so close that the only thing we see is her face. Physically, the role is demanding, requiring her to be in peak physical condition. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, she has no one to play off for a majority of the film but, unlike Hanks, her character is under a potential death sentence. It's impossible to conceive of her not getting a Best Actress nomination for this part.

George Clooney is given co-billing with Bullock primarily because he's a legitimate movie star with proven box office draw. Those expecting to get a lot of Clooney will be disappointed as he's essentially out of the film before the half-hour mark. He and Bullock are the only actors to appear on-screen. Ed Harris provides the voice of Mission Control (a likely nod to his part in Apollo 13 - "failure is not an option").

With apologies to Clooney, Bullock's real co-star is the setting. Created entirely on computers, it's a wondrous thing to behold. It's not sleek and distant like what we see in Star Trek or Star Wars. It gives us the fragment of a sense of what it must be like to be in space, surrounded by silence, floating in a near vacuum, seeing everything with a clarity that can't be found anywhere on Earth. The planet's many flaws fall away and it is no longer defined by national boundaries but by land and sea.

The simplicity of the setup reminded me a little of Moon, the underrated Duncan Jones film starring Sam Rockwell. It has the same sort of mindset, even though this is more action-oriented and has a noticeably larger budget. Both films, however, deal with the concept of isolation in space. It's a powerful psychological underpinning and Gravity, like Moon, explores it effectively. In this case, we have the added benefit of state-of-the-art special effects and superior acting supplementing a well-defined narrative. Throw in some of the best 3-D ever and Gravity becomes the complete package. See it in a theater. If you wait for home viewing, it will still be worthwhile, but the impact won't be as strong.

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