Gravity

October 9, 2013

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The seven year wait for Alfonso Cuaron to follow up what is, for my money, one of the greatest movies of the 21st Century, Children of Men, has been fraught with rumour and false starts and delays, but it has finally come to an end with Gravity, a science-fiction thriller that is short, fleet, and about the most stunning purely cinematic experience of the year.  Cuaron’s career has bounced from children’s films, both small-scale (A Little Princess) and as big as they get (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which I have never felt to be great but which certainly saved the franchise from shiny, cash-in ignominy), to adult character dramas (Y Tu Mama Tambien), and of course, dystopian sci-fi parables (Children of Men).  His visual chops have never really been in doubt, and though he’s become one of the most technically innovative directors working today, it’s not easy to tell quite what film you’re going to get from him.  In this case, we have a survival story that is extremely simple in story and concept, and incredibly complex in execution.  It is, in essence, the most basic form of Hollywood you can conceive, in the best way possible.

The scenario, as I said, is simple:  A team of astronauts are upgrading the Hubble telescope when a debris field comes smashing into their shuttle, leaving two survivors floating in space.  Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first trip up, having designed the upgraded system, and the veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who is on his last mission.  The brisk 90 minute running time involves these two – though mostly Bullock’s Ryan – attempting to survive and get back to earth.  It’s not a surprise that several people I know pondered where the story was when they saw the trailer, but Cuaron understands that “simple” does not necessarily equal “bad”.

The opening 17-minute shot is a gobsmacking declaration of intent.  The duration seems less impressive than those in Children of Men because this is largely a CG creation using digital, which allows for a floating camera to look and move anywhere…think of it as the culmination of what David Fincher was doing with his explorations of the apartments in Fight Club and Panic Room, but what’s perhaps most impressive about the technical achievement here is not “look what we can do” but “look at how well we can utilize the tools at our disposal”.  It is, in its way, a fairly classic bit of filmmaking, and even though it floats and swings around the xy, and z axis with seeming abandon, Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski use very traditional shot compositions and cues to keep us orientated during all the, well, disorientation.  In it’s way, it’s a nice middle finger to the plethora of action/suspense directors who adhere to the notion that chaotic filmmaking is the best way to portray chaos, especially as this film is genuinely disorientating and chaotic where their films tend to be just nauseating.

It’s a shame that the script leaves something to be desired, especially in the clunky way it introduces the traumatic backstory of Ryan’s character.  After Cuaron and Lubezki used their technical prowess for such politically and emotionally meaningful ends in Children of Men, it’s hard to completely overlook the relatively shallow nature of Gravity, even if it is at times quite moving, especially in the moments where it probably shouldn’t be (namely, Ryan’s scene where she basically gives up, which works because of Bullock’s committed performance and also nicely sets up a mirror scene not long after, where the film demonstrates the crucial difference between that feeling of “giving up” and the feeling of “acceptance”, and the huge victory of spirit that entails).  Still, I said this was a Hollywood movie, and I meant that in both the most glorious and the most reductive sense of thrilling attraction and the ability to take you places you’ve never been.

Even the performances by Bullock and Clooney harken back to the pre-method classical age, where star power was the draw and (again, I’m being reductive) the job of the lead actors was to be their persona.  Clooney is playing a charming ladies man who is comfortable in his nobility, and Bullock is playing a likable every-woman.  Neither is particularly a stretch, but Bullock does a good job of stretching her type to truly effective ends even if she never transcends it (nor, I would argue, should she).  In this mode, everything works precisely as it should, and oftentimes to a truly spectacular degree.  It’s a phenomenal display of craftsmanship, utilizing innovation and new tools to tell a simple story in the best possible way it can be told.  It is pure Hollywood, and it puts virtually everything else in the industry to shame.

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