When I was younger, and even to this day, movies were released front loaded with the hyperbolic praise of the professional critics. No matter how trite or unspectacular, Hollywood would find at least one critic who considered the latest rom-com a “triumph,” the cheesiest slasher film a “new chapter in terror,” the dullest independent feature an “unbridled exploration of contemporary sexuality vis a vis two puppets and a dead duck.” This has not changed. Films are still “rollercoaster rides,” “pulse-pounding thrillers that never let up” with “edge of your seat suspense” that are “quirky and authentic,” “breathtaking” and “the next generation” of whatever. It did not take long to learn that every film was so packaged with hyperbole. Soundbites are a part of the business and critics write with them in mind. Directors even shoot lines tailor-made for trailers. Sometimes they end up in the final film, sometimes they go with a more natural delivery. The reason for all of this is simple: we don’t want to walk into a film that’s just more cinema slop. We may be the filth but we like to be led to the slaughter for something more than “yet another overpriced schlockfest produced by the schlock studios of the schlockiest business on Earth.” So 2013’s latest, the much ballyhooed critical darling Gravity, I’m sure you see where I’m going with this…
I take a deep breath and I proceed, having introduced you to my distaste and familiarity with familiar hyperbole, having tried, in each of my reviews, to give you greater insight than you might find elsewhere, to plumb my brain for the honest reaction and to shy away from pat eulogy. But then again, how often do I get a chance to do this:
Gravity is spell-binding. It is a film that captivates with every frame. It takes the thriller gasping and panting into the next generation of suspense. It is a triumph of special effects and direction, a feast for the eyes. It is breathtaking.
Okay, in all seriousness, Gravity is not the second coming of Christ but it is a damn fine piece of work, meticulously produced and perfectly directed. The plot is as simple as it gets: protagonist needs to get from point A to point B. What puts Gravity head and shoulders and knees and toes above its fellow films is the fact that point A is “space” and point B is “Earth” and you will believe that. It is a terrifying and beautiful ordeal.
On a mission to upload new software into the Hubble space telescope, three astronauts are parked in Earth’s orbit on what should be a routine maintenance mission. Danger strikes suddenly however, as debris from a detonated Russian satellite rips through their shuttle, killing everyone onboard and leaving Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Captain Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) the sole survivors of their crew. Drifting in the emptiness of space, they must travel to the nearest space station before their oxygen and time run out. The Russian debris is circling the Earth, knocking out communications with Houston and certain to return to them in 90 minutes.
There must be an antonym for claustrophobia* and whatever that word is fits perfectly in the description for this film. Alfonso Cuarón has taken a magnificent leap forward in technology, depicting the weightlessness of space and the stark majesty of Earth as if he were truly there. The camera moves freely in 360 degrees, traveling from hundreds of kilometers out and into the helmets of his astronauts without a single break. I do not intend to praise 3D, as I believe it is a needless and stupid marketing gimmick (and indeed I did not watch this film in 3D), but if ever there were an argument for paying the obscene price for those stupid glasses, this movie would probably be it. I am almost tempted to see the film again in IMAX, as I can only imagine how much greater this spectacle would be, how insane its endless starlit vista, but that money tree I planted in the alley behind my apartment keeps getting looted. If you however have money to burn and a wicked desire to experience this thing in all its glory, by all means hie thee hence.
Gravity does not have any sort of illuminating moments built into its screenplay. The dialogue is fine and Sandra Bullock, our lead, is not bad but not particularly great either. I do not mean to slight the actress, it’s simply that she cannot overcome the limitations of her script. Would another actress have done better? Maybe. But the majority of her work is to be terrified, and the majority of her scenes take place with her in a space suit, so in the long run it doesn’t matter much. She pants and gasps and that is all that is required.
The reason to see this movie is not for the acting nor the script. The reason to see this movie is because it is thrilling. It is an intense depiction of the awesome emptiness of space, of its uncompromising isolation and of its supreme deadliness. I cannot imagine a film of this kind being made any earlier than today; the technology simply did not exist. No film, neither 2001 nor Space Cowboys, has achieved the scope and power of Gravity. There are two scenes of destruction resulting from the Russian debris, both depicted in absolute silence (sound was actually added to trailers of the film) and the effect is as chilling as it is beautiful. There is something almost unholy about the dread such chaos conjures and watching Bullock fight to survive it is everything movies are supposed to be. It is such a simple concept and yet I cannot recall another film that captures the terrifying feeling of being trapped, truly trapped. Even films in which characters are lost at sea fails comparison, for there is an above and a below filled with creatures and life. The claustrophobia analogy works double-time here, for our astronaut is completely surrounded by nothing but inanimate danger and the abyss of infinity.
The second half of the film throws everything at Bullock that it can and it becomes scene after scene of desperation, of failures, of terrible despair, and though the actress does get a little maudlin toward the end, Gravity never looks anything less than genuine. This is a movie made for the big screen in every way possible, and everyone involved should be commended for their work here, director Cuarón as well as the hundred thousand or so effects people who must have labored day and night to realize it.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Warner Bros. Pictures
*For my fellow obsessive compulsives, “Agoraphobia” comes closest, but it is usually associated with crowded places or enclosed public spaces. It comes from the Greek roots for “fear” of a “gathering place.” But I am led to understand it can also refer to fear of wide open spaces. The search for a better definition continues.
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