Monday, October 7, 2013

Gravity: In Space, No One Can Hear You Have a Panic Attack

     Seeing Gravity in IMAX 3D is the closest the majority of us will ever get to being up in space, hundreds of miles above the Earth. It's also one of the most stressful movie experiences I've ever had the pleasure (or pain) of being a part of: between of all of the spinning, breathing trouble and panic that Sandra Bullock's character experiences, I felt like I was 12 years old again, pinned to the wall of the Gravitron at the Blue Hill Fair. There's no question that director Alfonso Cuaron has created one of the most technically brilliant spectacles--really, see it in IMAX 3D or don't bother seeing it at all--of movie-making maybe ever, and it's a testament to his skill that a film about two people floating in space is intense for its entire 90 minute run time. But after all of the pomp and brilliant execution of special effects and 3D, there's still something a little bit missing that prevents Gravity from becoming an instant classic.
     The movie wastes absolutely zero time before it makes your blood pressure rise: Medical Engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are servicing the Hubble Telescope, and "Houston" comes onto the radio--Ed Harris' voice, in a nice nod to Apollo 13--to warn the crew that debris from a Russian Satellite have started a chain reaction of faster-than-a-bullet metal chunks that threaten to damage their mission and shuttle. And then: Boom. It happens--hundreds of thousands of deadly shards rip apart their ship, and both characters are rolling and floating in free space with dwindling oxygen and a twirling loss of direction.
     There are no more plot points to delve into: just picture every worst case scenario for Bullock's character at nearly every turn, and you're almost there. In a film such as this, a film that focuses on (mostly) one character, it's generally hard to relate without some back story or flashbacks. But Gravity foregoes any sort of character development and focuses on the incredible visuals. Sure, we get a few introspective talking-to-herself scenes about Bullock and a deceased family member, but they're the worst parts of Gravity. And that's not to take anything away from Bullock's performance in the film--it is surely good.  But I'm skeptical that it's one of the best portrayals of the year. Anyone can breath really heavily (like me, sitting in the theater watching the movie). Clooney is charming and assured, as always. But the real star of the film is the terror and loneliness of space.
     Gravity is one of those films that comes along every couple of years that truly advances the technology of special effects and computer-generated imagery. The 3D--something I avoid nowadays--even works perfectly with the zero-gravity objects and floating humans fading in and out of the various shots. A scene involving sparks and fire was especially incredible. When Matt and Ryan are blown from their ship, you are out there with them, in the great unknown, instead of just watching on a screen. Cuaron is an expert at integrating you--the viewer--directly into the scenes. Just take a look at 2006's Children of Men, his most recent film before Gravity: the long tracking shots, the beautiful dystopian visuals, the incredibly intense you-feel-there scenes. He continues his dominance of directing intensity with Gravity. Another shine of excellence: the sound, editing, and score. Since the film takes place in the vacuum of space, explosions and the deadly debris field don't make noise for our characters, so the music plays an intregal role in upping the tension. And when Bullock enters different areas, the clashing of sound rather than silence is a shock to your senses.
     Many themes run through Gravity, themes that have been explored in cinema many times before: trying to survive in the face of death, the randomness of life, the psychological danger of isolation. And these themes--though never heavily focused on--work well with Cuaron's direction. Though Gravity on the whole seems like one long tracking shot, Cuaron actually seamlessly interweaves POV angles from inside Ryan's helmet to outside shots showing the perils of her situation. It's effective. One could go on and on about the visuals in Gravity: it feels like this is the future of movie-making in the ever-growing computer-based technology age. One could also argue how realistic all of the science stuff is, but it's not really the point. This movie is made to entertain, not be a Space 101 class. And it does entertain: Gravity is one of the greatest technological achievements in modern movie-making, and one that could have reached perfection had the characters mattered more and the script be less typical.     (B+)

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