Review: Gravity

Two of FMR’s film critics went to see Gravity this weekend and here’s what they thought of  Cuarón’s unusual space odyssey starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.

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Another masterful project by Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity” grabs moviegoers from the first five minutes and never relinquishes with its beautiful visuals and perfectly choreographed tension and suspense.

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

One of the oldest movie plot devices is “Monster in the House”, where characters are threatened by some sort of devastating force in a confined space or environment. This could be in the form of a supernatural ghost or force haunting house dwellers in the “Paranormal Activity” or “Poltergeist” series, or massive dinosaurs devouring humans across the isolated Isla Nubar in the iconic “Jurassic Park”. “Gravity”, by definition, is not a monster movie purely because it takes place in the least confined area in existence: outer space. But the sense of impending doom and the character’s hampered mobility makes “Gravity” an incredibly powerful cinematic experience that hearkens the best of the horror, action, and dramatic genres. It reaches for the stars and never lets moviegoers out of its orbit.

“Gravity” starts off with the maverick crew captain Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) spinning around carefree in space while providing guidance to his novice colleague Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).  We immediately learn that Kowalski is fun-loving but also completely in control, a man who is master of his own emotions and able to focus and adapt to any possible hazardous situation. Stone on the other hand is frail and timid, desperately avoiding any conversational topic or human interaction in favor of the therapeutic isolation and silence of space. But speeding debris suddenly attacks their vessel, and Kowalski and Bullock are thrust into empty orbit of the earth’s atmosphere only joined by a flimsy tether cord as they attempt to find a way back to the blue dot.

The film has very strong themes of human evolution and maturity, as Bullock develops from a hopeless and scared as Clooney attempts to rear her through the situation like a parent comforting their child during a bad dream. And even in the vast emptiness of space, the same foes still show their face: the constant return of the devastating debris, constantly malfunctioning electrical devices, and the complete inability for characters to control their environment or situation. Space is without conscious, and Stone’s biggest enemy here is her self-doubt. This movie isn’t so much a story about surviving in space as much as conquering your fears and developing self-reliance. Good thing though that the film does an excellent job at both.

One film that “Gravity” is clearly similar to is that of “Apollo 13”, where an ill-fated craft malfunction lead to NASA and astronauts on board teaming up to find a way for the crew to get home. And even though both films showcased the triumph of quick human ingenuity over nearly hopeless circumstances, “Gravity” is uniquely different in that Stone and Kowalski must rely completely on their own instincts without anyone’s help or guidance. Stone’s symbolic birth and maturation throughout the film, from learning how to move crawl in zero gravity to even learning to read and speak brings back memories of the classic human evolution space race in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. This film borrows the best aspects of its sci-fi and dramatic predecessors while providing enough original material to be a modern classic.

There are no real flaws to “Gravity” except that it may be a tad self-aware and congratulatory of how good it is, but frankly it earned that right to boast. The cinematography is awe-inspiring and the VFX are state of the art, so much that it would be just as enjoyable to watch the crew work without in peace without conflict instead of being thrust into turmoil. It is truly a film whose directorial vision has been brought to life without compromise, just as the past Alfonso Cuarón film “Children of Men” created a gritty and hopelessly surreal post-apocalyptic landscape that made audiences question what was a movie set and what was reality. Bullock gives a masterful performance, showcasing a magnificent triumph over tragedy tale as Clooney gives his always-welcome, easy-going joker performance. The tension is fierce but the comedic relief is soothing. And the consistent awe-inspiring view of Earth is a treasure. “Gravity” hits all the right notes to elevate itself above the fall film slate as the best major studio film of 2013 without question.

Justin Sedgwick
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[author image=”http://www.filmmakingreview.com/wp-content/plugins/user-avatar/user-avatar-pic.php?src=http://www.filmmakingreview.com/wp-content/uploads/avatars/7/1381017874-bpfull.jpg&w=60&id=7&random=1381017874″ ]Justin works for the Sundance Institute and is a contributor to Filmmaking Review. He currently writes some TV stuff for CharacterGrades.com and has previously written at MTV Networks’ Nextmovie.com. He loves Bruce Springsteen, Chipotle, the Denver Broncos, and of course – Movies. [/author]

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Sandra Bullock

Much of the pre-release buzz around Alfonso Cuaron‘s Gravity has featured comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey. That Kubrick classic is not only held up as one of the greatest space-set movies ever, but also as one of the best made in any genre whatsoever. With its icy, yet hypnotic, atmosphere and complex symbolism, it’s no surprise that 2001 is still kept on such a lofty perch. How can Gravity measure up to 2001’s legacy? The short answer is that it doesn’t. The long answer is that it doesn’t because it’s a totally different sort of space adventure, one that succeeds effortlessly on its own terms.

Instead of trying to one-up Kubrick’s film,  Cuarón has made a movie that is the polar opposite. 2001 is a heady puzzle open to all sorts of interpretations, even as it’s dressed up as a sci-fi adventure. Gravity is infinitely simpler. That’s a statement, not an insult. Gravity isn’t out to ask big questions or leave us scratching our heads. Instead, it’s an expertly calibrated thrill-ride that seamlessly moves from one set-piece to the next, all executed with magnificent skill.

The plot is but a simple tale of man vs. the environment. After a Russian satellite is destroyed, the debris wipes out the space shuttle carrying veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), and first-time space walker Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). With communications with Houston down, the pair are left to their own devices to survive long enough for some sort of rescue. Only, as the opening title cards inform us, this is an environment where there can be no happy co-existence. Life in space is impossible, so it’s not a matter of whether the characters can adjust to their surroundings. They know full well what awaits them if they fail.

And as a tale of desperation and determination, it’s hard to fault what  Cuarón and his team have pulled off. Running at a crisp 90 minutes, you’d be hard pressed to find a wasted moment in this visual roller coaster as it careens from one big moment to the next. Even in standard 2D, the sensation of being in space fully comes through thanks to Cuarón’s bravura direction, along with Emmanuel Lubezki‘s photography, and the staggering visual effects that fill out his shots. As in Children of Men (2006), there are quite a few long takes, which only heightens the sensation of zero-gravity terror. Steven Price‘s score is also quite powerful, used consistently but never to the point that it becomes a suffocating sonic distraction.

But it’s not all technical showmanship that makes Gravity such a relentlessly effective experience. Children of Men was also a first-rate bit of filmmaking, but it suffered from thin scripting and lukewarm performances. Gravity’s writing may not be its strong point, but it certainly hits the mark considerably better than Children of Men ever did. There’s little room to create full, satisfying dramatic arcs, but the scant characterization does come through in moving, and ultimately rousing, ways.

This is largely due to what leading lady Bullock pulls off as the film’s emotional anchor. While her co-star is used more for cheeky asides and star power (sometimes distractingly so), Bullock is fully convincing with what could have been an empty shell of a character. First and foremost, Dr. Stone has to simply survive, and Bullock carries herself with the right amount of fear and steely determination. The film could have easily turned into nothing more than an hour and a half of Bullock screaming and panting. Instead, there’s enough attention to her character’s past, as well as enough moments that give the actress room to breathe, that make her someone worth rooting for, instead of a blank audience surrogate.

Of course, given the set up, this means that the information we learn about Dr. Stone has to come in the form of dialogue that manages to cover all of the BIG important details of her life. It’s not the most elegant approach, but Cuarón’s directing never flags in the quieter moments. When things slow down (relatively speaking), and silence takes over, Bullock turns the handful of character details into a surprisingly affecting performance. The actress may not have much to sell, but she gives it her all and sells the hell out of it, even when the script threatens to become hackneyed.

All of this builds to a tremendous finish that is not only visceral, but also quite emotional. It’s tempting to refer to Gravity as little more than an expertly-crafted theme park ride. However, I doubt anyone has ever been on a ride that worked their emotions over along with their nerves and adrenaline glands. Gravity is a narratively simple film, but to dismiss its achievements so flippantly ignores the tremendous amount of effort put forth by those involved. Cuarón’s film, which took seven years to reach screens, is a powerful cinematic experience that uses its simplicity wisely, rather than as a crutch. It’s not the next 2001, and it doesn’t need to be. Gravity is its own sort of space adventure, and it’s a fantastic one to boot. That ought to be enough.

Jordan Baker

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