Friday, October 4, 2013

Gravity (2013) Review

Gravity poster
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity
George Clooney in Gravity
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity
Hanging on by a rope in Gravity
Sandra Bullock in Gravity
A moment of tension in Gravity
satellite debris in Gravity
Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Purchase from Amazon: DVD - Blu-Ray

+Stunning visuals/cinematography
+Great use of setting
+Good use of sound and silence
+Well crafted
+Good acting
-Too much use of music/dialogue
-Sentimentality occasionally feels overdone
-Holds the viewer's hand a bit 

Other films by Alfonso Cuaron: And Your Mother Too, Children of Men
Similar films: Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, The Tree of Life

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller

Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski and newbie Dr. Ryan Stone are on a space shuttle mission in the orbit of Earth when unexpected debris from an exploded satellite causes them more trouble than they asked for. Trapped in space with oxygen running low, they must find a means of getting back to Earth.

The concept is very straight-forward. It's narrative is very linear and to-the-point, but its execution is something else entirely. The entire film takes place in space and features only two characters, but the distant Earth is constantly present in the background and in the characters' minds that it almost feels like an unreachable second setting and space plays so active a role that it almost feels like a third character in and of itself.

And man, does this film utilize its setting well. James Cameron called it "the best space film ever done" and I might just agree with him. Ultra wide shots (the film only used wide angle lenses) and multiple long takes help convey the vastness and solitude of space. Even the 3D did well to add an extra sense of depth to the massive abyss. On the other hand, great use of POV shots and extreme close-ups help to put you in the shoes of the main character. You will often feel as dizzy and disoriented as the main character (not that space even has an inherent orient), you'll feel the same helplessness, desperation, and even lack of breath.

Space is alive in its nothingness, active in its indifference. "I hate space," Sandra Bullock's character mumbles at one point. Gravity shows us emotional people reacting to an unfeeling void. Space is a constant source of danger and suspense. The tension in this film is crazy. It's edge-of-your-seat stuff. The idea of losing grip and drifting away into space with no control over your movement is such a scary thought, both physically and psychologically, and the film knows this. It at times has as unnerving of an atmosphere as a horror film might. As a thriller it is certainly incredibly thrilling. 

There's some good use of sound, but more importantly, great contrasting use of silence. The silence of course reinforces the massiveness and desolation of space. There is a musical score, done by Steven Price, and while the score itself is fine, it's certainly no rival to the silence. As the director has said, "There's no sound in space, but there's music in movies." That is of course true, and of course music is used to build tension or help convey the emotions of a scene, but I would have liked to have seen less music and more silence, as I feel that the silence is one of Gravity's best tools, far more valuable and effective than the music. 

There was also, I felt, too much dialogue. For a film largely about one person floating through space, you'd expect less. Some of it is perfectly warranted, like transmitting "in the blind" to Mission Control in hopes they'll receive the message, and even Sandra Bullock's character talking to herself felt natural most of the time as she was established as a very solitary person, so it's completely believable that she'd occasionally murmur a thing or two to herself. Still though, there could have been less talking and, again, more use of space's inherent silence. A lot of the dialogue felt unnecessary. There's also a lot of sentimentality in here (the scene with Bullock's character and the Chinese guy on the radio was terribly unenjoyable). Again, a lot of it is warranted, especially if you view the film as an allegory for grieving and rebirth, but some of it felt overdone or unnecessary.

The film does hold your hand a little bit. Only a little though. Sandra Bullock will talk to herself just to remind the audience that there's satellite debris hurling towards her. Even the beginning of the film felt the need to inform the viewer that there is no sound in space because there is no air for the vibrations to travel through. As if anyone over 12 isn't aware of such a common scientific fact.

But we should be thankful that Gravity didn't end up being a typical Hollywood blockbuster, which it very well could have been. The two characters could have easily fallen into numerous romance conventions, scenes taking place on Earth could have easily been implemented, more characters added, etc. Luckily director Alfonso Cuarón is of much more talent than that.

Another behind-the-scenes talent is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. He's worked on many of Cuarón's previous works as well as many of Terrence Malick's films (including The Tree of Life which not only has equally beautiful cinematography as Gravity but curiously deals with many of the same themes as well). As if you couldn't already guess, the cinematography here is amazing and Lubezki, along with Cuarón, undoubtedly played a major part in making the film as stunning as it is. The engulfing blackness is humbling, the distant stars beautiful, and the massive Earth jaw-dropping.

In front of the camera Sandra Bullock and George Clooney do a fine job as well. Bullock carries the film, being the only character on-screen for the majority of the film. I haven't seen many Bullock films, but it wouldn't surprise me if this is one of the best performances of her career. Clooney has a less frequent role, playing a character we're all familiar with from Clooney: laid-back and suave. While this is definitely Bullock's movie, Clooney adds a welcomed dimension to the film, contrasting Bullock's character with his likable, calm, and humorous personality. The two are, for movie stars, fairly convincing astronauts (the director didn't allow them to wear any make-up, which adds a bit of realism to their appearances).

Like the other big Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro, who, with Pacific Rim earlier this year, made the film he would have wanted to watch as a child, a film which relies on stunning visuals that just weren't possible no more than 15 years ago; Alfonso Cuarón, quoted as saying that he made the film that he would have loved to see when he was young, achieved very much the same thing with Gravity. Gravity is a technical masterpiece, a milestone in special effects, and just completely awe-inspiring and stunning. Much like Pacific Rim. And Gravity does, at times, feel like a mindless special effects roller coaster thrill ride, being little more than a demonstration of technical ability. But there is more to Gravity than that. In movies every shot serves a purpose, every scene a motive, and every word a meaning. If you care enough to watch closely it's nearly impossible to miss the clear depth, symbolism, and metaphor that the director crafted.

[Spoilers in this paragraph:] Dr. Ryan Stone is mourning her daughter; she takes escape to its utmost extreme: she literally leaves Earth. In this orbit she experiences a rebirth. She often accepts death, whether it be from the debris flying towards her or the seemingly impossible task of getting back down to Earth; she has nothing to live for. But gravity pulls and Dr. Stone must fall before she can get back up (get it? Stone? Ha!). There was always a reason for her to live, for her to try and survive, and it was always there tugging at her, she just had to realize it. She had to allow gravity to do its job. Allow herself to be pulled back down to Earth, back down to reality, back down to solid ground. This is her rebirth, her umbilical cord-like tether has been cut and she must find herself alone. And when she gets back to Earth and finally reaches land for the first time in the entire film, something she can finally plant her feet on, she nearly falls back down while trying to get up (remember, she just spent the whole film floating in zero gravity and swimming. Walking is a foreign concept to her body.) "No, not this time," she says, her face nearly hitting the sand, and rises to her feet. She's done falling. Gravity doesn't need to pull her back down anymore, she's already grounded, all she has to do is stand up.

There's even more subtle, less meaningful things you may have missed in the film. For example, in the Russian space station there's chess pieces flying around and in the Chinese space station there's a ping pong paddle floating around. There's some other light-hearted moments like this throughout the film, and some not so light-hearted, but I'll leave them for you to find on your own.

In conclusion, Gravity is an amazing visual spectacle but it proves that that's not all it is. It is genius in its minimalism and thrilling in its execution. It is one of the greatest films of the year, and will likely prove to be one of the greatest of all-time. Arguably Cuarón's best work to date and a worthwhile experience for any lover of cinema.

4/5 stars

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