Fantastic Fest 2013 Review: Gravity



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Rocket Science becomes Movie Magic

Just when it seemed that we had seen everything cinema had to offer in terms of visual narrative here comes director Alfonso Cuarón delivering his long-awaited follow-up to Children of Men. And like that science-fiction classic, his first movie in seven years strives to push visual storytelling to unexpected new heights.

I could easily take the hyperbolic approach and say that Gravity has ushered in a new period of cinema. You have BC and AC, as in “Before Cuarón” and “After Cuarón.” It is a film that I had been anxiously awaiting for more than three years. Now there are those films that you have high expectations because of the actors involved or because you think it’s going to be a huge, money-well-spent spectacle. My reason for gravitating to Gravity is in large part because of reading what Cuaron was looking to accomplish with his latest cinematic endeavor. He wanted to present a terrifying tale of survival set in an uninhabited place without air that’s conveniently located hundreds of miles above Earth.

Space.

Alien made the point of acknowledging that in space no one can hear you scream. In Gravity, Cuarón suggests it is the fear of dying alone is what drives a person to do the incredible.

As a story, Gravity is very simple. Two US astronauts are working on the Hubble Telescope until they get a warning that Russia has deactivated one of its satellites in the form of blowing it up with a missile. The explosion has caused a ripple effect in sending a field of debris in fast orbit around the circumference of the planet. The crew and the shuttle are in its path. Before a complete evac to the shuttle can be done, the debris slams into their shuttle and parts of the Hubble. The shuttle is ultimately destroyed and the two astronauts become stranded in space. The rest of the film is spent trying to figure out how to survive and possibly make it back home to Earth.

Before you ask how can such a story be stretched to fit the constructs of a feature-length film, know that the film runs 88 minutes. The restrictive time allows for a tighter story. The short length also leaves little time to analyze the visuals in the moment. Sitting here writing I’m still going over some of Cuarón’s tricks. In interviews he promoted the opening scene a great deal, and how it was going to be a long tracking shot the likes we’ve never seen. Knowing this I sat as the scene developed, watching intently looking for a cut or transition. Maybe that was a mistake. Movies are very much a form of magic; sometimes it’s best to enjoy the trick as it happens.

With the opening shot being nearly seamless the director audibly introduces us to Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Kowalski is a veteran astronaut on his last mission in space. Stone is a first-timer up in orbit, nervous.

It’s interesting to note that at one time this project was to have starred Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr. Both would have been fine in the roles, but thinking about the final casting in hindsight, Bullock and Clooney are a great pairing. Kowalski is a bit of a jokester. As funny as Downey is, Clooney has that sort of humor that plays well when telling jokes with friends over a round of drinks. He’s in such high spirits that he doesn’t seem like a seasoned spacewalker at all. Kowlaski would be more at home wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of board shorts than a spacesuit. Then a tidal wave of debris comes flying their way and he becomes a man of action.

Dr. Stone doesn’t have much of a presence in the early goings – she tries to hide her panicked demeanor under cover of breath. Her role shifts to the forefront as the story moves along. That’s not a spoiler; advertisements have highlighted Bullock as the main protagonist. When a tragedy in her personal life is revealed it doesn’t come across simply as expository information. It enhances the arc her character takes and challenges her emotional spirit. Though nervous, she loved the emptiness of space, feeling there wasn’t anything worth for her on Earth. When chaos erupts she discovers who she is as a person and why, even through a tragedy, we must all strive to live.

Cuarón shows just enough restraint with his characters to make us care about their circumstances. Bullock is no great actress but that could be because she’s never really been tested. Mostly known for her romantic comedies, Bullock gets the opportunity to be vulnerable and heroic. Clooney lightens the mood early on and becomes a calming voice to Bullock when situations are most bleak.

Shifting gears to become a life or death struggle the film gives us plenty of hair-raising thrills (check the ones on my neck if you must). Every obstacle the astronauts face becomes that much more daunting in an effort to return home. The situations are made more impressive due to a weightless environment. This is one of the rare instances where the 3D upgrade is worth it; small objects floating aimlessly in a spacecraft allows for a greater immersive experience. Emmanuel Lubezki’s (Children of Men, Tree of Life) brilliant cinematography also provides the survival tale with beautiful imagery that would have been sorely lacking in most flights of peril movies.

A supreme technical achievement all around there’s no mistaking Gravity to belong to any other filmmaker. Alfonso Cuarón may be a person of note for those who have seen his previous, Children of Men, a film that probably didn’t net the acclaim it should have upon release. Now he’ll probably become a person of interest to studios that would be more than willing to support his next high-concept project. If most of this year’s blockbusters have been less than blockbustery, and thrillers less than thrilling, give Gravity a chance. About as visual, if not visceral, experience you’ll have at the cinema. Just be thankful that when this rollercoaster ride is over your feet will be firmly planted on the ground, and you will be more than willing to run to the front of the line for another trip.


Director(s): Alfonso Cuarón
Writer(s): Alfonso Cuarón and Jonas Cuarón
Notable Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

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