Sunday, October 6, 2013

LOST IN SPACE: a review of "Gravity"

Screenplay Written by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
**** (four stars)

Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" is a gargantuan piece of filmmaking, the kind of which that is typically boasted about through hurling the bludgeoning of special effects and a punishing sound system at audiences but otherwise has nothing to do with craftsmanship, storytelling skill and cinematic vision. Most blessedly, Cuaron and "Gravity" have no interest in pummeling an audience into submission with soulless, heartless flash but enveloping, enrapturing and terrifying us all solely and precisely with that aforementioned craftsmanship, storytelling skill and cinematic vision that is in increasingly short supply in 21st century cinema. Cuaron has made a groundbreaking piece of work that serves as a Master Class to new filmmakers, as well as long established directors, with not only how to wring intensity and raw emotion by rendering a story to its most essential visual elements, but also exactly how to utilize special effects and make them something to behold. Without question, "Gravity" is another high bar set by Alfonso Cuaron, a filmmaker whose career is filled with nothing less, and quite possibly the equal to his extraordinary "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (2001). It is also, without question, one of 2013's highest achievements as it transcends the act of watching a movie into one where the movie becomes a full experience.

To allow you to take in the experience of "Gravity" to the fullest, I will keep my plot description to what you have all essentially seen in the film's gripping trailers. Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone an astronaut, nervously on her first space mission while George Clooney stars as Matt Kowalski, a cocky, veteran astronaut on his final voyage into space. As Ryan and Matt, plus a third astronaut, undergo a spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope, unexpected chaos ensues, erupting into a horrific chain reaction of destruction, dislodging Ryan from her crew and spiraling end over end into the furthest reaches of space as she tries to survive in an environment where life is impossible.

For a film that is tailor made to be a visual extravaganza that is emotionally resonant, "Gravity" delivers the goods in one astonishing feat after another. From the very first image, Cuaron firmly establishes the viewer into a "You Are There" event that is as awesome as it is unnerving. Working in splendid collaboration with Composer Steven Price, Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the special effects team, Cuaron's dazzling visual palate surprises, petrifies and leaves us breathless and gasping for air as often as Ryan Stone does as she struggles for her life. With "Gravity," Cuaron has also returned us to a certain realism in regards to films set in outer space. For the life of me, I am hard pressed to think of a film like this since Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) that did adhere closely to the real science of what space is actually like, especially in regards to there being no atmosphere, therefore no sound whatsoever. Having grown up with George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977) and all manner of space adventures, thrillers and space operas with starships zooming through hyperspace with accompanying otherworldly sound effects, Cuaron's "Gravity" is supremely jarring by the absence of sound, an element that increases the tension and terror tremendously.

Most effectively, and leaping off from the stellar work he achieved in his exhausting and criminally underseen "Children Of Men" (2006), "Gravity" is presented in what is essentially a series of long takes, sequences that are continuous as they feature no edits. It is a dynamic form of filmmaking that somehow Cuaron never presents as self-congratulatory. His skill with the technique is so fluid that it is almost invisible, leaving the occasionally unbearable intensity at the forefront, which is indeed where it should be. Therefore, Cuaron has made a film that demands to be seen repeatedly; the first time to take in the experience as a whole and all subsequent viewings to delve further inside the storytelling and filmmaking brilliance on display.

If you are able, just regard the film's opening ten to fifteen minutes, which I think are all told in in one unbroken long take. Just watch how the characters are introduced, how Cuaron's camera glides through the stars into wide shots revealing the vastness of space plus the majesty of Earth below and then floating into close-up to read the actors faces in perfect clarity. Another sequence where Ryan is spinning uncontrollably, Cuaron takes us all the way into her helmet to her point of view vantage point and then back out again to gauge her reactions to the sights and the nightmarish implausibility of her survival. The stunning camera work works so very well because Cuaron ensures that not one moment refuses to be story driven, a point I keep returning to because too many films of this scale have long forgotten that special effects are nothing more than tools and if it ain't on the page, all of the effects in the world cannot give a movie its soul. "Gravity," by contrast to much of what is released today, has soul to burn.  

From a storytelling standpoint, Alfonso Cuaron's screenplay, written with his son Jonas, has seamlessly blended the "popcorn movie" with existential drama, making "Gravity" function simultaneously as a thriller as well as a poetic mediation upon life and death with juxtapositions peppered throughout. Just the idea of the unspeakable sights of soaring above the Earth's atmosphere in zero gravity, surrounded by stars and observing the sunrise is majestic. It is also profoundly imposing as the environment of space has no interest in regarding you and your humanity as it is that unforgiving. Cuaron illustrates so stupendously how life can change to death in less than the blink of an eye and there is no manner with which to stop it should it arrive--much like the nature of life and death while firmly planted upon the ground.

For such a hefty conceptual canvas, Sandra Bullock was a marvel. Every time I am just this ready to give up on her completely, she turns around and surprises me. With "Gravity," Bullock is at her most wrenching as well as her most fearless, reminding us of why we fell in love with her in Director Jan De Bont's action classic "Speed" (1994) in the first place. Her charm remains as effervescent as always but now she has grounded it in a level of pathos that I truly have not seen from her before. As Dr. Ryan Stone, Bullock has to channel a universe of emotions from anxiety and panic, to strength and steadfastness, to mournfulness and suicidal, to defeat and victory and back again and with even her trademark sharp, wry humor arriving in just the right moments. Sandra Bullock creates a character that you not only want to see survive this mammoth predicament but one you truly would want to follow to the ends of the universe. It is a performance as seamless and as seemingly effortless as Cuaron's filmmaking as whatever acclaim she is bound to receive for her work in this film, it is richly deserved.

George Clooney offers perfect supporting work as Matt Kowalski, appearing as if he is the real life version of Buzz Lightyear, with his cocksure attitude, loquacious storytelling, can-do spirit, even while barely tethered to his own survival. His calmness serves as the perfect counterpoint to Bullock's uncertainty providing very distinctive contrast between his moments of inevitability with her own.

If I had to give "Gravity" even the smallest of dings, it would have to be within the film's final sections of which I will, of course, not describe but will say leans a bit more towards the, shall we say, conventional. But, as I ruminate over the film now, I also wonder if perhaps Curaron has given us the greatest juxtaposition of all by contrasting the survival of the body with that of the spirit. Now, this may not make sense until you see the film for yourselves but I do think that Cuaron's poetic vision has indeed made for a film that can be completely taken at face value from start to finish or it could be taken at face value up to a point where then, it becomes an even greater metaphor for what the experience of life and death can possibly be and mean.

And how great it is that a film can transport us so supremely and that a filmmaker is working at the absolute peak of his powers to do so. In interviews, Alfonso Cuaron has explained that due to the story's simplicity, he truly felt that he would have been able to complete the film within one year. But, "Gravity" ended up taking five long, grueling years to make and believe me, dear readers, when I tell you how worth it is was to take that time to make a piece of film that is indeed unforgettable, one for the ages, serves the soul while also turning your knuckles white from gripping the theater seats that tightly.

As always, I experienced "Gravity" not in IMAX or 3D but in standard 2D, due to my distaste for the gimmick of 3D and just for the overwhelming nature of the IMAX format, which I find unpleasant. That said, Alfonso Cuaron has created a work that fully and artistically lends itself to both formats and I could easily envision how immersive an experience "Gravity" would be under those circumstances.

But, not so for me as I have no need to be flying through space and losing oxygen right there with Sandra Bullock. I was just fine right where I was!


  1. Totally needs to be seen on the big screen, no matter which format. It just makes the experience all the more better. Nice review Scott.

  2. I hear you and that is indeed what everyone is saying to me. I know the film is just made for something like IMAX. But, I really meant it. The IMAX experience I had was just not pleasant for me--the sensory overload was too terribly much for me. Even so, I found it to be so effective in a standard format anyway--as you could tell.

    THANK YOU for taking the time to read my review. It is MUCH appreciated.