Thursday, October 24, 2013

Gravity movie review.

220 miles above the earth, without any oxygen or atmosphere, life in space is impossible. Thus, the stage is set for the latest film from director Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity. Best known for films such as Children of Men, and Y Tu Mama Tambien, Cuaron hasn’t been in the director’s chair for seven years. When this movie was announced, everyone got hyped. We followed all the big news on the project, waited impatiently when it went through development limbo, and for many, the wait was justified. Gravity is far and away one of the best received films of the year (arguably over the also raved 12 Years a Slave). It earned universal acclaim from the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals, has so far raked in almost 300 million dollars in box office revenue from strong word of mouth (including breaking the record as the strongest October opening in history), and has even earned praise from director James Cameron as the best space film ever made. This movie sure has a lot of standards to meet, and I’m satisfied to say it met all requirements. Gravity is not only a masterfully directed and acted piece of extraordinary cinema, it accomplished what no movie, not even any horror movie in at least the last ten years has been able to do… it genuinely terrified me.

On a mission in orbit, a team of specialists take a shuttle to repair a damaged satellite. It’s here where we meet the two main characters. Kowalski (George Clooney) is a charismatic veteran who delights in wisecracks, telling stories about Mardi Gras and exes, and listening to Hank Williams Jr. while staring at earth, while Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a doctor and team rookie, tries her hardest to keep her meals down in the taxing zero-G’s. Sounds pretty routine, but it isn’t long until disaster strikes. Debris from a broken satellite and everything in its path that was hit strikes the shuttle, breaking communications with mission control, and leaving both Stone and Kowalski drifting through space, trying their hardest to survive and make it safely back to the planet.
More of a survival thriller than straight up science-fiction, Gravity is an intense ride that puts every emotion through a workout. Through his direction, as well as his screenplay (co-written by his son Jonas), Alfonso Cuaron works to quickly establish a tangible sense of intimacy with the characters. It’s a film that puts an unusual feeling of involvement in the experiences of the characters, sometimes literally thrusting into their viewpoint with first-person shots through their helmets (Some of the best work Emannuel Lubezki has ever done, and will surely go down as the year’s best achievement in photography), and it makes the frightening sequences all the more nerve wracking. Cuaron understands that investment in character is necessary to make the terror tactics of a movie work. It wreaks havoc with my vertigo, my claustrophobia (even in the vastness of space, it feels frighteningly closed in), and even the sound (or lack thereof) can make an impact. What we don’t hear in the movie can often be more unsettling than what we can hear (this aspect is well handled by Glenn Freemantle), and the emptiness can further enhance the bleakness of the surroundings. I’m not usually one to review the 3D of a movie unless I feel it justifies the writing space, but even the use of 3D works to enhance the mood of the film, making those views of earth all the more impressive, and the cold, loneliness of space all the more striking. I don’t know what this movie did, or how it did it, but more films need to do it. This is a film that justifies an inflated IMAX 3D ticket.
Of course, terror is not the only thing that makes Gravity work so well. It’s mainly with the storyline of our main character Ryan Stone. This is where the aforementioned intimacy comes into play. Much of the film is shot in Cuaron’s signature long takes (which he and co-editor Mark Sanger are smart to let linger), and the equal weightlessness of the camera movement works to help us see, and experience, the trauma of the character’s situations, and follows her on her quest to find the will to survive, and rebirth (one shot in the film visually referencing this). Much like helping us experience what she sees from her view in her helmet, it puts us right into her emotional state. When she feels scared, I felt scared. When she felt sorrowful, I felt sorrowful. It’s a strong and empathetic character, and one that grants Sandra Bullock a remarkable performance. With Gravity, Bullock is finally given a chance to put her talents fully on display with a role that requires great strength emotionally, physically, intellectually, and she handles them all incredibly well. Not once does she feel false, and not once does she hit a dull note. As far as I’m concerned, not only is it the best work of her career, it’ll probably go down as the best performance in any film of 2013. Of course, some well deserved attention ought to go to George Clooney, excellent in a role that, while it may feel like Clooney doing an impersonation of himself, still feels every bit as believable as Bullock’s character.

Only time will tell if Gravity will be considered among the greatest movies of all time, but from the road it’s on, it looks well on its way. Nowadays, movies may not always be of the best quality, or tell the best stories, but when films like this appear, it’s like a breath of fresh air. I have a feeling this is going to be a film that people are going to praise and remember for many years to come. If it hasn’t been made glaringly obvious by now, I will be genuinely shocked to see a movie this year that is better than this one.

***** / *****

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