Saturday, October 26, 2013

In Theaters: Gravity

Gravity poster

I'm writing this review under a bit of a time crunch, partly because I want to jump ahead to Halloween stuff but also because Gravity is a film that needs to be caught while it's in theaters, and while it's playing in 3-D on a good large screen. The movie is a rare event, a roadshow spectacle, and that makes it a little hard to judge. The common thinking that if a movie is so dependent on visual splendor that it needs to be seen in the best circumstances to have its full impact, it can't be that good. But the impact Gravity has is so powerful that it feels unfair to downgrade it for its exclusivity. I of course expected great things when the director of Children of Men tackled science fiction (or something like it) again, but had my doubts as to how to sustain the story of two people lost in the void of space. But the film's conceptual simplicity is its great strength, resulting in a disciplined, tense, and beautiful experience, one which shows just how difficult it can be to cling to our lives.

Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a scientist on her first space shuttle mission, helping install new hardware on the Hubble space telescope, when an attempt by the Russians to destroy a wandering satellite results in a fast-moving storm of debris moving around low Earth orbit. In the ensuing chaos, the shuttle is destroyed, and Stone, caught outside, begins drifting out into space, while the only other survivor, the veteran Kowalski (George Clooney) manages to tether her as they set out towards the ISS. Oxygen supplies are dwindling, and though the debris has passed for now, Ryan and Kowalski still have to contend with the brutal physics of a zero-gravity environment and an increasingly narrow number of ways to get back to Earth.

What stands out alongside the film's beauty is its conceptual purity. We never leave Ryan's side; exposition about the Russian satellite situation is relayed via communications from Houston, and when those are cut off, we're as alone as she is. There are no flashbacks to flesh out character backstory, and scenes often flow into each other without obvious transitions, such that the film seems to unfold in real time. It doesn't, but the appearance of such creates an immediacy that heightens the suspense of the picture. We're allowed some breathing room- Cuarón isn't a total sadist- but we never reach a feeling of status quo, either.

With this focus- and a running time just over ninety minutes- comes some very efficient visual storytelling. The director uses the freedom of a zero-gravity environment to create some remarkable setpieces and hair-raising sequences. There are no sloppy cuts or poorly chosen angles to obscure the action; we can see what's going wrong in often agonizing detail. It's real white-knuckle Wages of Fear stuff, but balanced out by incredible visual beauty and a sense of humanity to the admittedly briefly-sketched characters.

The Earth is always looming in the background, dazzling us and the astronauts with its splendor. It's almost teasing, but their proximity strengthens their resolve to get home. Through conversations between the survivors we learn that Ryan is in mourning for a daughter who died suddenly from a simple, mundane accident, and that a certain despair haunts her. She is, in effect, being kept apart from the world by her own emotions as well as physical circumstance, and there are also images of birth and pre-birth adding to the film's subtext. It would be very easy for this to become excessive, hamfisted symbolism, but Cuarón has a way with this kind of imagery and makes it seem more than just a clever script contrivance.  It helps that Sandra Bullock gives what has to be the best performance of her career, managing some very wide swings of emotion in a way that's organic and believable. George Clooney's character doesn't go on quite the same journey, maintaining an astronaut's straightfaced resolve, but he's extremely well cast and as charming as ever.

In some ways the film recalls the message of Children of Men, that life can be horrible but is no less amazing for it, and must be fought for as hard as possible. It's much more focused, of course, and perhaps suffers some for lack of time to really draw its characters as vividly as possible, but it's a prime piece of hard science fiction nonetheless. It's hard to say how much of its impact will remain once it's left theaters, but perhaps in this day and age there's something to be said for creating an experience you have to go out of your way to see. Gravity is an intense and immediate experience, and that's the sort of thing movies are best at.

Written by Jonás and Alfonso Cuarón (with uncredited rewrites by George Clooney)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Grade: A

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