Friday, October 4, 2013

"Gravity" (2013)

Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney
Written by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Rated PG-13 - Peril, frightening images, language
Running Time: 89 Minutes

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), an astronaut with little training, is on a mission to install a prototype scanning device she designed on board the Hubble telescope. She's joined by her mission commander, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran of the program on his last mission. While on a spacewalk to install the device, their space shuttle is hit with debris from a destroyed Russian satellite. The debris is circling the world at high speed, destroying other satellites and creating more debris.

With their crew dead and shuttle destroyed, Stone and Kowalski find themselves alone in Earth orbit, out of contact with mission control in Houston. Stone's lack of training is causing her to panic, and her dwindling oxygen supply isn't helping. With limited options, and time running out before the debris circles round the planet for another devastating event, Stone and Kowalski make a desperate run for survival and salvation.

The setup of "Gravity" is simple. I probably said more about it than I needed to, and it was only two paragraphs. The bulk of the film is occupied by only the two characters played by Bullock and Clooney, and the focus is more on Bullock. Make no mistake, this is her show.

And she owns it. Her sense of panic, tempered by Clooney's calm voice of experience, is palpable. She's easy to identify and sympathize with. Sure, you'll always be aware that this is Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, two of the most recognizable movie stars on the planet. But Bullock throws herself into this role, and shines because of it. Clooney has a lesser role, and it's one he's well-suited for - suave, funny, you know the type. But here it acts as a calming force in a film full of outright panic and fear. Clooney is here in a comfortable role so that he can comfort us.

If you think a movie where there's mostly only one character can't work, you're wrong. While the script obviously takes some shortcuts to keep things moving, that motion is so awesome you'll barely notice. With its brisk running time, "Gravity" moves at a blistering pace, throwing all kinds of gorgeous imagery and thrilling spectacle at the audience.

Let's talk about what an astonishing technical achievement this film is. Everyone who worked on it, from digital artists and model makers all the way up to the actors and director should be intensely proud of the work they've done here. "Gravity" is an impeccable piece of filmmaking on a technical standpoint, with glorious effects, sound design, and direction. Each of the "attacks" in the film by the dreaded debris field are white-knuckle experiences.

Cuaron has taken the long-take concept that made his "Children of Men" so fascinating visually to the next level. There are many sequences in this film made without cuts (obviously, this is the result of yet more genius effects wizardry, but still) and it is mightily impressive to behold. Take note of the first, lengthy scene as the camera slowly finds the Explorer space shuttle, then swoops around it over and over again as the characters move about on their spacewalk. It's incredible.

If this film doesn't land Alfonso Cuaron an Oscar nomination for Best Director, there's probably no justice in this world.

Some complaints have been made about the scientific accuracy of the film, but honestly, it's a movie. Concessions are made for the sake of drama, in pretty much every movie ever made. At some point, you've just got to get over it.

Cuaron has constructed a series of set-pieces that are just the definition of thrilling, with a ton of "holy shit" moments. Space is gorgeous, and awe-inspiring, but it is also treacherous. When the shit hits the fan in this film, the slightest mistake could mean doom in cold oblivion, and "Gravity" never lets you forget that. Each time Stone nearly misses grabbing hold of a rope or tool or ladder rung that she needs to survive, you'll be holding your breath.

But this sense of barely holding on to live isn't just in those action sequences, it permeates the entire film. In this sense, "Gravity" could just as easily be called "Fragility." Stone's situation is so tenuous, as she hangs alone in space staring at the big blue marble we call home... And then you start to think that, well, so is ours.

I'm not one to always think about "What It All Means" when it comes to films, but walking out of "Gravity" had me thinking about life in general, thanks to Stone's character arc of a person trying to find some direction in her life, regardless of where it takes her. It's a nugget of an idea that snowballed on my way home, and I thought of that fragility for us all, and for this world, as we struggle and claw our way through life. Maybe I'm overthinking it.

But whether I am or not doesn't matter; "Gravity" is an amazing piece of filmmaking, one that deserves to be seen big and bold in a theater. I chickened out of seeing it at the IMAX, but even without having seen that, I can recommend that you do. The cinematography is built for 3D, not just in a "throw shit at the audience" kind of way, but in a sense that there was real thought that went into each sequence about depth and movement in a three-dimensional space.

Often, we find ourselves in a first-person perspective, and here the 3D aspect of it all would thoroughly shine... or cause nauseous vomiting. Your mileage may vary.

I'm gushing a lot about this film, so I'll just end on this note: See this movie.