Monday, October 21, 2013

Stars In Space

Year: 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Do you hear that sound?

That's the sound of Sandra Bullock's maid clearing a space on her Oscar shelf.

Way back when in July when the incredible first trailer for Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity was released, it was hard to imagine that an entire feature film could be as tense and horrifying as that one and a half minute exercise in pure terror.

It's easier now.

Space is the worst.

There are only two (living) faces in the entire film. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a computer scientist who has been sent to update the programming on the Hubble telescope, and her crewmate Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a cocky space jockey who's trying to beat the world record for longest space walk.

The film opens in the middle of their operation and hits the ground running. Within ten minutes a cloud of debris created by a chain reaction of exploding satellites has ripped through their shuttle, destroying their crew and their ride home and leaving Ryan and Matt stranded in the middle of a zero gravity nightmare.

The International Space Station is visible but a hundred miles away. Matt's prototype jetpack is running out of fuel. And the debris cloud is due to return within 90 minutes to rip them apart.

If you think humans belong in outer space, watching these two drifting helplessly and spinning around uncontrollably above the Earth's atmosphere will certainly change your mind. It's impossible to comprehend the abject horror of being adrift in the void and Gravity leaves you with a pit in your stomach before anything even remotely unpleasant happens.

I can't even.

(MILD MID-MOVIE SPOILERS IN THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS) What follows is an 80 minute adventure to return to the Earth's soil before the outer atmosphere turns into a whirling dervish of sharp metal and desiccated corpses. The two are separated early on and the inexperienced Ryan must fight her way through a series of dilapidated and hull-damaged space stations to get to a functional escape pod as her oxygen tank dwindles away to nothing. It's a bare bones escape plot that provides a backdrop to Ryan's rebirth and transformation. 

She begins the film as a shell of a person. Her young daughter died in a playground accident and she no longer has the drive or motivation to do anything with her life. She just exists. She's, dare I say, drifting. The film is heavy on visual metaphors for this rebirth process, starting off with the "umbilical cord" connecting her to Matt and an unforgettable shot that, clear as day, imitates a fetus in the womb. I am loathe to spoil any of the rest of the film or take away the joy that comes with unpacking a film's symbolism, but I'll just say the final act and closing shots of the movie are masterful and elegant.

If you've seen the film and are interested in my interpretation of her development, please highlight here [She is "born" through the atmosphere in the escape pod and "baptized" when she is submerged in the water of the ocean. Her crawling out of the muck and onto the beach, then taking a few shaky steps into the light resembles both the child development process and the evolution of man. She is a different person with a newfound lease on life thanks to her evolution in outer space. And the three times Ryan is pelted with debris mirror the three trimesters of pregnancy. If you want to read that far into that.]

Sorry about spoilers. Does this picture of George Clooney make it better?

Gravity manages to be a high octane action thriller and a subtle meditation on the nature of being thanks to Alfonso Cuarón's delicate visuals. His predilection for long tracking shots has never been put to better use than this film (the majestic and detailed opening shot is a staggering 17 minutes long), with its sinewy zero G camera that suggests weightlessness almost as much as the manifold angles with which we view the characters. There's no gravity here, it doesn't matter if the characters' feet are pointing up or down or any which way but loose. Cuarón knows this and his camera moves with the grace of a pirouetting ballerina.

And about the 3D: I had my doubts about it going in, but it absolutely wouldn't be the same experience without it. In 3D, you can peer through the curved glass of an astronaut's helmet, cower in fear at the shrapnel flying out of the screen (in a way that avoids the gimmicky side of "things coming straight at your face" and opts for the more organic approach of "Holy crap we're gonna die!"), and have space to sit back and marvel at how the hell they did any of this.

But the film's images, nimble and refined though they are, can barely hold a candle to the gale force that is the soundscape. Gravity is an out and out miracle of sound design. An entire satellite is smashed to bits, ripped apart by flying scrap metal and all we hear is breathing and a heartbeat. There's no sound in space, yo. Every single thing you hear apart from the score (which is wonderful as well, by the way) is a noise either produced by the human body or within the confines of the suit. Suck on that, Star Wars.

The lack of noise on visuals of massive destruction provides a dissonance that racks the tension up to eleven in an already supernaturally anxiety-producing film. And the surround sound. Oh, the surround sound! I beg you to see this film in theaters, where every little blip and click has a precise location that throws you headfirst into the world of Gravity.

Though that may not be desirable. 

So why is Miss Congeniality in this massively beautiful film? Frankly, because she earned it. Sandra Bullock's performance is an exquisite ballet of physically challenging and precise action and utterly breathtaking and natural emotion, injected with a raw humanity that will penetrate your soul. This is a one woman show, and nobody but Sandra Bullock (I honestly never thought I'd be saying this) could be that woman.

Gravity is a marvel of engineering, suspense, performance, and storytelling. And, like I always say, no good story can't be told in 90 minutes. Cuarón knows how not to overstay his welcome and the film zips along at an unprecedented clip. It's taut, airtight, and manages to avoid being a bloated and overwhelming ego trip (couugh cough 2001: A Space Odyssey cough).

I'm well aware that it must not be perfect, but so help me I can't seem to find a single flaw. In the middle of one of the worst runs of Hollywood filmmaking in the history of the medium, Gravity has singlehandedly restored my faith in cinema.

It's one hell of a ride.

TL;DR: Gravity is about as close to a masterpiece as a sci-fi/action film could ever be. If the pile of Oscars this film wins doesn't weigh more than my car, I'll be surprised.
Rating: 10/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Absolutely yes, go see it now. In 3D. Surround sound. Before it's too late. Hurry. Right now.
Word Count: 1233

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