Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review: "Gravity"

Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Runtime: 90 minutes

Much of the pre-release buzz around Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity has featured comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey. That Kubrick classic is not only held up as one of the greatest space-set movies ever, but also as one of the best made in any genre whatsoever. With its icy, yet hypnotic, atmosphere and complex symbolism, it's no surprise that 2001 is still kept on such a lofty perch. How can Gravity measure up to 2001's legacy? The short answer is that it doesn't. The long answer is that it doesn't because it's a totally different sort of space adventure, one that succeeds effortlessly on its own terms. 

Instead of trying to one-up Kubrick's film, Cuaron has made a movie that is the polar opposite. 2001 is a heady puzzle open to all sorts of interpretations, even as it's dressed up as a sci-fi adventure. Gravity is infinitely simpler. That's a statement, not an insult. Gravity isn't out to ask big questions or leave us scratching our heads. Instead, it's an expertly calibrated thrill-ride that seamlessly moves from one set-piece to the next, all executed with magnificent skill.

The plot is but a simple tale of man vs. the environment. After a Russian satellite is destroyed, the debris wipes out the space shuttle carrying veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), and first-time space walker Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). With communications with Houston down, the pair are left to their own devices to survive long enough for some sort of rescue. Only, as the opening title cards inform us, this is an environment where there can be no happy co-existence. Life in space is impossible, so it's not a matter of whether the characters can adjust to their surroundings. They know full well what awaits them if they fail. 

And as a tale of desperation and determination, it's hard to fault what Cuaron and his team have pulled off. Running at a crisp 90 minutes, you'd be hard pressed to find a wasted moment in this visual roller coaster as it careens from one big moment to the next. Even in standard 2D, the sensation of being in space fully comes through thanks to Cuaron's bravura direction, along with Emmanuel Lubezki's photography, and the staggering visual effects that fill out his shots. As in Children of Men (2006), there are quite a few long takes, which only heightens the sensation of zero-gravity terror. Steven Price's score is also quite powerful, used consistently but never to the point that it becomes a suffocating sonic distraction.

But it's not all technical showmanship that makes Gravity such a relentlessly effective experience. Children of Men was also a first-rate bit of filmmaking, but it suffered from thin scripting and lukewarm performances. Gravity's writing may not be its strong point, but it certainly hits the mark considerably better than Children of Men ever did. There's little room to create full, satisfying dramatic arcs, but the scant characterization does come through in moving, and ultimately rousing, ways. 

This is largely due to what leading lady Bullock pulls off as the film's emotional anchor. While her co-star is used more for cheeky asides and star power (sometimes distractingly so), Bullock is fully convincing with what could have been an empty shell of a character. First and foremost, Dr. Stone has to simply survive, and Bullock carries herself with the right amount of fear and steely determination. The film could have easily turned into nothing more than an hour and a half of Bullock screaming and panting. Instead, there's enough attention to her character's past, as well as enough moments that give the actress room to breathe, that make her someone worth rooting for, instead of a blank audience surrogate.

Of course, given the set up, this means that the information we learn about Dr. Stone has to come in the form of dialogue that manages to cover all of the BIG important details of her life. It's not the most elegant approach, but Cuaron's directing never flags in the quieter moments. When things slow down (relatively speaking), and silence takes over, Bullock turns the handful of character details into a surprisingly affecting performance. The actress may not have much to sell, but she gives it her all and sells the hell out of it, even when the script threatens to become hackneyed.

All of this builds to a tremendous finish that is not only visceral, but also quite emotional. It's tempting to refer to Gravity as little more than an expertly-crafted theme park ride. However, I doubt anyone has ever been on a ride that worked their emotions over along with their nerves and adrenaline glands. Gravity is a narratively simple film, but to dismiss its achievements so flippantly ignores the tremendous amount of effort put forth by those involved. Cuaron's film, which took seven years to reach screens, is a powerful cinematic experience that uses its simplicity wisely, rather than as a crutch. It's not the next 2001, and it doesn't need to be. Gravity is its own sort of space adventure, and it's a fantastic one to boot. That ought to be enough.

Grade: A- 

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