Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Gravity" Review, or The Fine Art of Making Movies For Everyone

From L to R: Clooney, Bullock, Cuaron
When I saw the first trailer for Alfonso Cuarón's latest film Gravity, and it came to a shot of Sandra Bullock's astronaut spinning off into a vast empty void of space, I remember a pure jolt of absolute terror rushing through me. I know I'm not alone in this, as most of the online reaction to that shot ran along the lines of, "She's so fucked."

It's a powerful image, from a film that has more beautiful, powerful, wondrous, terrifying imagery than any film I can recall from the last five years. Cuaron's masterful command of camera movement and his grasp of the possibilities of 21st century camera techniques, visual effects and editing combine with some great performances to create that rarest of things; an intelligent well-crafted film that has something for everyone while still being innovative. It's the kind of film-making that made Hollywood famous, and the rarity of those kinds of films these days makes it even more remarkable.

Cuaron is one of the handful of film makers whose work takes what modern film making technology and technique is capable of and pushes it even further. His 2001 film Y Tu Mama Tambien was a significant calling card and Hollywood took notice. He directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which many consider to be the best of the franchise. But his 2006 film Children Of Men was the film that really catapulted him to the front line as one of the most interesting directors out there. Gravity is a labour of love for Cuaron, who also wrote the screenplay with his son Jonas, and he has spent the five years since Children of Men getting Gravity off the ground.

She's so fucked.

The film stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, a mission specialist on her first Space Shuttle mission and co-stars George Clooney as Matt Kowalski, the mission commander. When high-speed debris strands Stone and Kowalski outside the Shuttle, the veteran and the neophyte must work together to find some way to survive in the most inhospitable environment imaginable.

It's a simple premise, perhaps amongst the most base in storytelling. Cuaron doesn't over-complicate the script, keeping us with Stone and Kowalski entirely. There's no flashbacks or fleshing out of the story. And this simplicity keeps us in the stark suspense of their situation, continually ratcheting up the tension. Bullock gives perhaps her greatest performance as Stone, letting just a few moments in the beginning illustrate that, while her specialty gives her a reason for being in space, she is not an astronaut. This gives us a greater affinity with her, and he situation is so hellish that you're never wondering why she isn't more capable. Clooney gives her very good support, but this is Bullock's movie through and through, and she rises to the challenge.

The real star of the film though, are its visuals. Cuaron creates what must surely be the most realistic and perfect space imagery since 2001: A Space Odyssey. He manages to simultaneously depict space in the most awe-inspiring and beautiful ways, while never allowing the audience for a second to forget about how utterly dangerous and terrifying it is. If you see it in IMAX 3D, as I did, you'll actually feel enveloped in the film, and that mixture of breathtaking beauty with a sense of dread is one of the real triumphs.

This is not to suggest the film is perfect. Anytime it wanders away from the central jeopardy of the plot, it loses its way. This is due totally to the dialogue, which when it's not NASA-speak focused on the procedures and survival, is clunky and too on the nose. It's a challenge that Bullock tries mightily to combat, but it does serve to illustrate that perhaps the Cuarons are more talented at structure and plotting than realistic human dialogue.

But this is a relatively minor quibble in a film that will surely be one of my best of the year.

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