Gravity (2013) / Drama-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense peril, some disturbing images and brief strong language
Running Time: 90 min.
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris (voice)
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Screenplay: Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron
Review published October 4, 2013
Sandra Bullock (The Heat, The Proposal) stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, who has been sent aboard the space shuttle on a NASA mission into Earth's orbit in order to make an alteration to part of the Hubble Telescope. George Clooney (The Descendants, The Ides of March) is a veteran astronaut named Matt Kowalsky, guiding the crew through the tricky but mostly routine mission, out for one last long space walk before his retirement. Calamity strikes when fast-flying debris from an exploding satellite impacts their shuttle, leaving Ryan and Matt, the sole survivors of the mission, without any easy means to return to Earth. With oxygen and power to their space suits running out, and with the debris threatening to come back with another wave of destruction, the two hope to make their way to another orbiting station in order to find a space pod to give them safe passage back to Earth's surface.
Alfonso Cuaron writes and directs this pet project that took him several years of development, waiting for technology to catch up to his vision, before it could see the light of day. Although it is a simple film regarding two people fighting to survive under increasingly bleak circumstances, to say that this is all the film is about would be missing the point entirely. Cuaron delves deeper, painting an emotional background on its main characters, especially that of Ryan, who is still lamenting the loss of her young daughter in a freak accident. Still racked with grief, Ryan hasn't been able to move on much with life, wondering if it is indeed worth continuing, which, under this day's most trying of circumstances, pushes this question to the limit, forcing her to finally answer its call. The tagline of the film is, "Don't let go", which, once you've seen the film, is the perfect one to suggest that, even when life seems at its most trying, to not succumb to the 'gravity' by letting things pull you down.
Gravity is sparse on dialogue, as it is mostly a two-person cast, but it feels intimate due to the way that Cuaron puts us in the middle of the action along with the characters. It has been shot and released into theaters in 3D, only partially post-converted, and many will cite this film, with its many shots of debris floating across the screen as Earth looms in the background, so close and yet so far, as the best use of the process to date. It's an immersive experience on many levels, but none more so than psychologically, as we feel the pain, fear, and lurking sense of doom that inhabits these characters' mindsets as they find themselves having to make life-and-death decisions, each one seemingly less probable of success than the last.
But more than this, there is something fundamentally basic about its themes of space, tapped into previously in 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which parallels to being in space exist to that of our existence prior to birth -- oxygen tubes akin to umbilical cords, claustrophobic environs, perpetual states of suspension. There is a shot of Bullock in the film, one of the longer stationary shots, in which she is seen floating, sleeping from sheer exhaustion, as she goes more and more into a fetal position. It's as though, having just survived one scrape from certain death, she must find a way to reinvent herself, returning to a state where she can be reborn -- a second chance at life. It's a theme that carries through to the very end.
While the story is simple, bolstered by its richer themes underneath, what will strike with audiences most of all will likely be its technical achievements in visuals and sound. The CGI-infused space-scape is truly a marvel to behold, and the bigger the screen and the more advanced the sound system, the better, especially enjoyable for its stellar 3D. The score by Steven Price (The World's End, Attack the Block) is hauntingly beautiful, perfectly capturing the nightmare of the moment, and the brief areas of respite, adding weight to the visuals to the point where we can lose ourselves to the cinematic environs for lengthy periods, sometimes unaware that we're in a theater anymore, taking in the peril of the moment as if we're floating in the coldness and desolation of space along with the protagonists. And yet, despite the emphasis on its technical facets, Cuaron should be credited for keeping the scope large but the story quite intimate throughout.
While he's certainly a darling among critics, I personally haven't been as enamored of Cuaron's past works as many others have. While some critics proclaim Y Tu Mama Tambien one of the best films of 2002, I give it a mildly negative review. While many fans consider Prisoner of Azkaban, by far, to be the best of the Harry Potter films, I rate it one of the worst. While a healthy number of film viewers consider Children of Men a modern-day masterpiece, I think it interesting in parts, but it definitely falls far short of that lofty mark for me. I can only wonder, given that I consider Gravity a very good film, how lofty the praise will be among those who think Cuaron is one of the genius filmmakers of his generation. Perhaps its praise will reach beyond the same thermosphere its characters inhabit. While the jury on Cuaron's genius is still out with me, Gravity is a good start toward winning me over.
The effect of watching Gravity, at least to me, is more than watching damaged characters struggling to appreciate life. In its quieter moments -- the ones in which we see the beauty of Earth in the distance contrasting to the scenes on man-made space vehicles completely devoid of anything natively Earth-like -- the film compels us, in the audience, to appreciate just what a beautiful, remarkable place Earth really is. Such things as the sound of a howling dog, the wail of a crying baby, or the feel of sand between our toes - they just can't be replicated in the expansive, desolate, uncaring reaches of space where no sound exists, where actual touch is foreign without our 'cocoon' of sterile, oxygen-based enclosures, and where there is no warmth to sustain us. The dialogue may be limited, the storyline simple, but it's for moments such as these -- the moments when we realize that our existence on Earth is indeed a sublimely miraculous thing -- that it becomes clear just how well Cuaron captures, for moments at a time, just how much life can truly mean.
©2013 Vince Leo