Monday, October 7, 2013

GRAVITY: Cosmic Survival Story and Mind-Melting Cinematic Achievement


- Yes, GRAVITY is a roller-coaster ride. But man, what a ride it is. This is a movie that demands to be seen on a huge IMAX screen, and in 3D. This is a film that is about evoking awe, wonder, and terror. Ultimately, this is a movie that will succeed with each individual based on their ability to immerse themselves in its cosmic universe. Personally, I was 100% gripped for the duration of the film. I marveled at what director Alfonso Cuaron was able to pull off here, even as the power of his images and storytelling blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. Rare is the movie that leaves you feeling like you've just emerged from experiencing what the characters experienced - not just emotionally, but physically. Rare is the cinematic adventure of this caliber.

Cuaron doesn't waste any time here. It positively flies by, and I was sort of amazed at just how economical the storytelling was. Movies and TV trained me to expect Gravity to, at any moment, hit me with melodramatic flashbacks to its characters' lives on earth, lengthy prologues and epilogues, or extended scenes of expositary dialogue. But Gravity is spare and on-point. It's entirely about what is happening in-the-moment, and about putting its audience in-the-moment. And so, some may wonder why there isn't more backstory for the characters. But to me, the bare-bones back-story was refreshing. The movie is about a very specific adventure, and it is laser-focused on conveying the immediacy and urgency of what we're seeing on screen. Very quickly, the film becomes about life-and-death-struggle, and it never lets up, all the way through into the final moments of its astonishing finale.

It's rare that after seeing a film I want to go and watch behind-the-scenes making-of docs immediately afterwords. But here, that was one of my first reactions upon the film's conclusion: "how did they do that?" Yes, these days CGI makes nearly anything possible, but CGI alone doesn't account for the seamless nature of Gravity's images, the almost complete lack of disconnect or disparity between the human actors and their environments. If someone were to say that Cuaron actually filmed the movie in deep space, it wouldn't seem altogether crazy. On a technical level, the movie is a marvel. But Cuaron is one of those guys who mixes technical wizardry with artistic genius in a way that few if any of his peers can. With his trademark long takes, Cuaron rarely deviates from the movie's you-are-there aesthetic. At the same time, the movie is "realistic" in its attention to detail and use of logic and science, but also mind-blowlingly artistic. Cuaron roots the events of his film in science, but he never fails to imbue every scene with retina-searing artistry - magnified even more so by the added immersive quality of IMAX and 3D. Channelling the spirit of Kubrick and Ridley Scott, Cuaron pays aesthetic homage to films like 2001 and Alien, but speeds past them in terms of sheer sensory assault. As an example, large segments of GRAVITY undoubtedly show the visual influence of videogames. Cuaron expands on the way that first-person games build virtual worlds around a player's field of vision, and uses that aesthetic to thrilling effect. Gravity has first-person scenes that feel truly next-level. Just as Cuaron borrows from the world of gaming, I wouldn't be surprised to see many games in the next few years borrow heavily, in turn, from him. Overall, the way that Cuaron frames his shots - the way he plays with perspective, field-of-vision, and movement - it's all clearly the work of a mad-genius mind that is operating on another wavelength from most humans. How is he visualizing all of this, and how is he translating that vision so completely to the screen?

The film is also more than just a literal adventure. There's a not-so-subtle subtext at work here that gives the movie an added dimension of being a spiritual journey and not just a physical one. And how could it not be? If anything is fodder for considering one's own mortality, place in the universe, and spiritual purpose in the cosmos, it's a story about being stranded in the void of space. Cuaron is pretty on-the-nose with his death/rebirth imagery throughout the film, but personally, I think the lack of subtextual subtlety fits with the rocket-powered tone and pacing of the film. Again, it seems to be in the interest of being economical. And it's a testament to the film's breakneck pace and edge-of-your-seat thrills that when Cuaron does stop for those quieter moments of symbolic respite ... those moments are powerful, memorable, and just as visually dynamic (if not more so) than when the action is going full-steam-ahead. I found the movie's spiritual themes to be just present enough to even further propel the main action, providing an added element of urgency and almost primitive, primal drive in our lead character's quest to get safely back to earth.

Speaking of which, that main character is Ryan Stone - played by Sandra Bullock. Stone is a rookie astronaut brought out to space for her technical and medical knowledge. She is paired with Kowalski - played by George Clooney - a veteran astronaut whose preternaturally calm demeanor helps to offset Stone's understandable nerves. Let me say this: I've never really been a Sandra Bullock fan. It's partly that I haven't loved the types of movies she's starred in, for the most part. It's partly that I can't recall ever being particularly wowed by one of her performances. But I went into Gravity with an open mind, willing to see if the actress could up her game to match the ambition of Cuaron's filmmaking. I came away hugely impressed with Bullock's performance, and as far as I'm concerned, this is her career-best performance to date, by far - blowing anything else she's ever done out of the water. The key thing here is that Bullock brings a realness and rawness that meshes perfectly with the immediacy of the film. I mentioned Alien before, and the first performance that Bullock's brings to mind is Sigourney Weaver's in that sci-fi classic. Not because Ryan Stone is anything like Ellen Ripley (far from it), but because both characters are (figuratively and literally) stripped bare while faced with terrifying danger and existential dread. Both must confront death head-on and choose to fight, to live. And Bullock does so with a rawness that I didn't know she had in her. I (and others I'm sure) have to reevaluate her as an actress post-Gravity. Clooney's character is there almost in service of Bullock. It's a simple role - Kowalski is the seasoned pro, the adventurer, the explorer - the guy who can laugh at death and danger and wax nostalgic about old girlfriends while working on precise projects far beyond the confines of planet earth. So yeah, it's basically Clooney as Clooney, but it's exactly what's needed in this film.

I'll also mention the film's score by Steven Price. It's a fantastic score - at times haunting, at times pulse-pounding - but always evocative of the awe and wonder of outer space. The fantastic music that accompanies the action adds immeasurably to the full-sensory-overload experience that is Gravity.

I do wonder, just a bit, about the longevity of a film like this. Stripped of IMAX and 3D and wall-to-wall speakers, does it still hold up as a film on the most basic level? GRAVITY isn't a film that has quite as much on its mind as, say, 2001. And it doesn't have the personality or badassery of an Alien. But Gravity is a different beast - it's easy to want it to be sci-fi-esque, to take on the elements of that genre that we associate with the aforementioned classics. But Gravity, while it does have that cosmic/spiritual element, is not sci-fi, and is not even a truly narrative or thematically-driven film. No - this is an experiential film - a breakneck rollercoaster ride that is about one thing: survival. Yes, it's about survival both on a micro, moment-to-moment level, and on a macro, big-picture, cosmic level. But just as the film's title suggests a primal force, so too does the movie as a whole feel primal, instinctual, fight-or-flight. The fact that Cuaron and co. were able to make such a lean movie that is, ironically, bursting at the seams with technical wizardry and astounding imagery - that, I think, is an award-worthy achievement.

My Grade: A

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