Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Big Review: "Gravity"

When the beat goes on, and you can't go on...
Forget about the IMAX and 3D nonsense, it would be a classic in any era. (Just like 2001.) This review previously appeared in ICON and appears with permission.

With Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón has made a masterpiece via a simple, frequently forgotten fact: the best movies in any genre are built on emotions. Stars come and go. Budgets increase. The technology gets better and faster. But the need for audiences to feel something is an unquenchable desire, and Gravity satisfies it better than any movie I’ve seen in years.

Far above the earth, a five-person crew repairs a satellite, which slowly drifts into view from right to left. We pick up snippets of conversation between the crew and mission control. That’s the extent of the set-up. It’s a humdrum stretch during another workday where the routine lulls everyone into a complacent efficiency.

The announcement of oncoming debris doesn’t come with much urgency. What’s supposed to be nothing turns into a catastrophe; the satellite and ship are destroyed, leaving astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) tumbling through the vast blackness, their chances of survival evaporating with each second. No one can hear them. Help is not coming. They are truly alone. 

Doom creeps in, slowly and assuredly. I saw the 3-D version of Gravity in the newly renovated Prince Music Theater, which is now equipped with all the digital trimmings that will make movies better and cure cancer or whatever. Cuarón uses the technology afforded him for what is: a complement. Gravity grabs you through traditional mastery: the reflection of the earth spinning in Stone’s helmet as she goes topsy-turvy; the shot of a family photo next to the poor bastard whose head looks like a hollowed out pumpkin. A Marvin the Martian figurine floats into the frame, and then—oh my God! Wait, was that a piece of debris? Move your ass, Stone!

You can count the number of cuts on two hands in the film’s first 45 minutes. Frequently, all we hear is the whirring of machines or a heartbeat as the soundtrack. Cuarón establishes an intolerable and never-ending loneliness. Stone keeps talking to mission control, almost out of habit.

Kowalski, essentially Clooney’s Danny Ocean in a spacesuit, is smooth-talking calm. He guides her. Through their clipped conversation, we learn a bit about Stone. She’s a workaholic. Her child died unexpectedly. She listens to anything on the radio when she drives home from the hospital. Bullock, to her credit, holsters the charisma and sports a borderline mom haircut that dampens the glamour. That she and Clooney don’t always take roles equipped with halos helps immeasurably. If Julia Roberts or Will Smith were the stars, their agents would have demanded that they ride back to Earth on a comet. With Clooney and Bullock on board, not trying to triumph over the material, we honestly don’t know if Stone and Kowalsky are going to make it.

Especially Stone. Space is where she can stay comfortably numb. Now that her paradise is lost, how badly does she want to live? How many obstacles can she summon the strength to overcome? Cuarón uses Stone as his social commentary. We’ve grown so reliant on things—technology, religion, outside forces—to guide our lives that we’ve stopped believing in the abilities of the human race. Stone represents a different kind of change, which is why we believe in her even when she’s stopped doing that herself. We need her to survive.

Gravity folds its allegory into the horror of Stone and Kowalski’s predicament. The excitement never dims the message and vice versa. One of the great thrills is watching Cuarón keep this balance throughout—catching us off-guard with the special effects, letting Stone battle to find her resolve, knowing when to whisper and when to shout. Everything about Gravity is seamless and assured yet brimming with the soul of an optimist. Cuarón has captured and amplified the human experience without isolating us from it. We lose and find ourselves all at once. [PG-13]


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This is a story about people floating through space, and Alfonso Cuarón's feature brilliantly contrives to make the viewer feel similarly untethered, to often thrilling effect. This is surely the closest cinema comes to three-dimensional virtual abseiling.

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