Gravity - Spaced Out!
21 November, 2013
"Gravity" by Alfonso Cuarón is about astronauts who met with disaster. Gravity is a huge and technically dazzling film. The film's panoramas of astronauts toppling against star-fields and floating through space station interiors are both informative and lovely.
The most surprising and impressive thing about "Gravity" isn't its scale, its suspense, or its sense; it's that, in its heart, it is not primarily a film about astronauts, or space, or a specific catastrophe. At times it plays like a high-tech version of shipwreck survival story that happens to take place among the stars (A Titanic lost in the Space), and that would fit nicely on a double-bill alongside "Titanic," "127 Hours," "Cast Away," or the upcoming "All Is Lost." With all its stunning exteriors, it's really concerned with emotional interiors, and it goes on exploring them with simplicity and directness, letting the actors's faces and voices carry the burden of expressing the meaning.
"Gravity" goes deep into the feelings of one character. Ryan Stone, a first-time space traveler who boards a shuttle alongside Clooney's Matt Kowalski to repair the Hubble telescope. When wreckage destroys the telescope and their ride, Ryan finds herself trapped in orbit alongside Kowalski, taking a crash course in disaster management, learning all she can from her more experienced partner, struggling to control the anxious heartbeat that hover on the soundtrack along with her deep breaths and the scattered hiss of backpack jets.
We see space, and Earth - and beyond it, a tiny dot that slowly draws close, revealing the mission, the vehicles and the characters.
In the hands of lesser storytellers, this shot and other, equally striking ones might play like showboating. Luckily, Cuarón, who co-wrote the script with his eldest son Jonás, roots every moment in a not so typical way. The fragility of the body has rarely been highlighted so consistently throughout the entire running time of a feature. Every time the astronauts move, or don't move, you worry that they're going to end up like their colleagues: bodies frozen hard as rocks, faces caved in like punk.
The movie makes this notion plain by shifting between points-of-view. A lot of the time we're in what you might call third person limited, watching Ryan and Kowalski move through their undependable environment and taking note of objects drifting along with them, some threatening, others oddly disturbing: a chess piece, a ballpoint pen, a fume of electrical flame, a teardrop. And then, gradually, subtly, "Gravity" will move into first person, drifting towards Ryan and then seeming to pass through her helmet, edging closer to her face, then finally pivoting so that we're gazing out through her visor, hearing her voice and breath echo inside her suit as she looks for a space station.
Few have already complained that "Gravity" is over-dramatic, too simplistic, too mystical, too something; that once we figure out that it's about the psychology of Ryan, we may write it off as less imaginative than we hoped. I don't believe such shortcomings - if indeed they are shortcomings - can dent this film's awesomeness. If "Gravity" were half as good as I think it is, I'd still consider it one of the great movie-going experiences of my life, thanks to the precision and beauty of its film-making. A surprising number of scenes are theatrically spare: just people talking to each other, telling stories, painting mental pictures for us.
Alfonso Cuarón trusts Bullock to give us a one-woman show, and she delivers. Her work here constitutes one of the greatest physical performances I've seen. The way she twists and turns and swims through zero gravity (or its studio simulation) is a master class. Some of the shots of Bullock's face through her helmet visor evoke Carl Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," the film that perfected the emotionally expressive closeup.
If anyone asks me what "Gravity" is about, I'll tell them it's a tense adventure about a space mission gone wrong, but once they've seen and absorbed the movie, they'll know the truth. The root word of "Gravity" is "grave." That's an adjective meaning weighty or glum or substantial, but it's also a noun: the location where we'll all end up in time. The film is about that moment when you suffered misfortune that seemed intolerable and believed all hope was lost. Why did you decide to keep going? It's is a mystery as great as any in physics or astronomy, and one we've all struggled with, and grown.
My Verdict: Gravity is a film which repays patience. The plot is one-track, the cast minimal and the pace relaxed. But it’s a real pleasure to experience space in a movie without an alien in sight.
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