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Josh Reviews Gravity

October 25th, 2013
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I had seen and enjoyed director Alfonso Cuaron’s 2001 film Y Tu Mama Tambien and 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but it was 2006’s extraordinary Children of Men that made me a fan of Mr. Cuaron’s for life.  Like so many, I have been eagerly awaiting Mr. Cuaron’s next film for the past seven years.

Gravity was worth the wait.

I went in with high hopes, but I was still deeply impressed by this mesmerizing film.  It is, first and foremost, an extraordinary visual achievement.  To call Gravity gorgeous is to not begin to scratch the surface of the film’s beauty.  Each frame of the film is a work of art, dipping the audience into a world of extraordinary beauty up in orbit of the Earth.  The immensity of the canvas in which the story is set — the staggering beauty and also the cold, quiet isolation of space — gives the film’s survival story an epic feel.   I doff my proverbial cap towards the hundreds of artists and animators who worked to bring this vision of space to life.

In Children of Men, Mr. Cuaron dazzled with his use of long, uninterrupted takes.  Enhanced by cleverly hidden edits and visual effects, there were extended sequences in that film — some over ten minutes in length — in which it appeared that the camera never cut.  I found the effect to be mesmerizing, giving one the sense of being right there in the story with the characters.  With the removal of the language of editing that we have become so accustomed to, the film felt less like watching a movie and more like we were witnessing real events happening right there in front of our eyes.  That effect has been taken many giant steps further in Gravity, in which huge chunks of the film elapse without any obvious cuts.  Mr. Cuaron’s gently moving camera not only pulls the audience into the story, but is also used extremely cleverly to simulate the effect of zero-gravity on his actors.

The film’s opening sequence is a bold announcement of the power of this stylistic device.  The first image we see in the film is a profoundly beautiful image of the Earth from space. It’s a long time before we see anything else, but gradually a small speck becomes the shuttle docked to the Hubble space telescope, effecting repairs.  The camera rolls around the image, pulling us close and then pulling away, a dramatic counterpoint to George Clooney’s astronaut Matt Kowalski’s zipping round and round the shuttle and telescope, as he tests a new jet-pack.  It’s an extraordinary scene, a dazzling visual sequence that makes the mind boggle when considering how they achieved it.  But it’s also a sequence of effectively mounting dread, as we know that Something Really Bad is about to happen.  The constantly moving camera never lets the audience settle in, it always keeps us on edge, just waiting with fear that around the next roll of the camera will be something awful.

But Gravity is not just a film about impressively-rendered sci-fi peril and adventure.  The film is effectively gripping because of our emotional investment in the characters.  Like a minimalist stage play (a bizarre comparison for such a huge visual effects film, but I think it is valid), Gravity basically has only two characters: the veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and the inexperienced scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).  The film is a tour-de-force acting performance for both of them, in particular for Ms. Bullock who is on screen for pretty much every second of the film.

George Clooney basically plays George Clooney, but man is he good at it.  He radiates charm and suave, and in Matt he has created a smart, noble anchor for Ryan.  After the catastrophe, she grabs for him as a life-boat (literally), and so too does the audience.  But Mr. Clooney’s work, while terrific, is all in support of Sandra Bullock.  I have always enjoyed Ms. Bullock’s work, all the way back since the days of Speed and Demolition Man, though more often than not I find myself disinterested in the films in which she chooses to star.  But she is spectacular here, taking Ryan through a wrenching (if not altogether unpredictable) character arc as she must find the inner fortitude to survive a seemingly impossible situation.  Often-times ion the movie, Ms. Bullock is working with the camera mere inches away from her face.  Watching the film in Imax 3-D, with her face filling almost every inch of the huge screen, this gives Ms. Bullock nowhere to hide.  But she rises to the challenge, and I didn’t notice a single false note in her performance.  It helps, of course, that she has been gifted with such an incredible star-vehicle.  Not only does the entire film rest on her shoulders, but as in the best sci-fi stories, the film is set up such that there is an emotional character story-line that runs parallel to the adventure story. Ryan’s internal demons pose as much of, if not a greater threat to her survival than her external situation.  And while we might guess that ultimately our heroine will be able to overcome these obstacles, the scene in which Ryan faces herself and finally takes a step forward is possibly my favorite scene in the movie.  Ms. Bullock’s performance trumps the amazing action-adventure spectacle.  I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay her than that.

Gravity has a strong sense of verisimilitude that helps lend the film’s story its, ahem, gravity.  The film feels real.  Part of that is due to the camera-work and the extraordinary visuals, as I have mentioned above, and part of that is due to the film’s attention to certain stylistic details, such as being far more careful than the average outer-space film to maintain the reality of silence out in space.  But while the film feels real, there is no question that the story makes a mess of scientific reality.  If this great film has a weakness, this is it.  Neil deGrasse Tyson has spent some time recently poking holes in the film’s story, and he obviously knows of what he speaks.  (For more info, read this great article from badassdigest.com: “The Truthiness of Gravity.)  The thing that Mr. deGrasse mentions that most stuck me when I was watching the film was the silly idea that not only were so many space-stations and satellites orbiting at exactly the same height from the Earth, so that they were ALL caught in the path of the debris field, but also that they were all so close to one another, up in the three-dimensions of space.  In reality, as this New York Times article points out, the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station are so far apart in orbit that not even a space shuttle would have enough fuel to get from one to the other.  Certainly not one astronaut with a small jetpack.  I also raised several eyebrows at the mechanics of Ms. Bullock’s adventures, very late in the film, in a space capsule during re-entry.  I don’t want to get into specifics so as not to ruin the film for anyone, but suffice it to say I found it doubtful that, in reality, she wouldn’t have been burnt to an itty bitty crisp.

But it’s only because Gravity gets so much RIGHT that some viewers have some quibbles about what it gets wrong.  It is a universe more scientifically accurate than any Star Wars, Star Trek, or pretty much any other sci-fi blockbuster I can think of.  There’s a part of me that wishes that film could have found away to tell its story without making those leaps from science-fact into science-fantasy, but I can also accept that it didn’t, and those scientific lapses don’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the film.

I have avoided much mention of the film’s plot, because there really isn’t too much of one, and that’s part of the film’s simple beauty.  Besides, you’re better off going into the movie knowing as little as possible about what’s going to happen.

Just go find the biggest screen you possibly can (I saw this film in humongous Imax 3-D, a perfect presentation), sit back and enjoy the ride.  You’ll be in for a thrill.

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