Monday, October 7, 2013

"Gravity" review

"Gravity" is one hell of a movie-going experience. Let me start off right at the bat by telling you that this film demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible and in 3D. If you see it in 2D and on a small screen, you are missing out. The bigger the screen, the more immersed you are. Needless to say, it was the most immersed I have ever been at the movies. Ever. I've tried to think of a movie that comes close and I can't. You know how "Life of Pi" had amazing sequences out in the ocean but then it cut away to "present day" and took you out of those amazing moments? "Gravity" never lets you cut away. Never. In fact, there are very few moments in which it cuts away, period.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson asked on his twitter why people should be impressed by "Gravity" when there is "2001" and I have that answer. "2001: A Space Odyssey" is more a philosophical film. It's completely engaging in different ways, but one thing that "Gravity" manages to do that "2001" never really did was completely capture the human experience of being alone in space. The emotional experience of being alone in space. With all of its jaw-dropping photo-realistic visual effects, what will surprise you the most about "Gravity" is just how intimate it is.

The film starts out with a beautiful image of earth and soon you are brought into this world that's populated by only three characters, only two of which you get to meet. There's veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, who is a complete motormouth. He never stops talking in the beginning the movie, which is good, because you can't really hear much of anything else. In space, everything is quiet except for the characters who can talk to each other. As soon as you get used to hearing Matt's voice, it gets taken away and all we're left with is the panting and the short breathing of Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).

This is Stone's first mission out in space and she's picked the worst occasion to be out here. In one long unbroken opening take, which will be analyzed and studied for years to come, we go from just hanging out with Matt and Ryan Stone to suddenly being forced to watch them handle the tons of flying debris that's headed their way. The high-speed debris comes into collision with their space shuttle and Ryan Stone winds up tumbling out of control. For what feels like forever, we watch Ryan Stone spinning in space, trying to keep her composure whilst being unable to stop breathing. The more she breathes, the lower her O2 levels get. So each breath she takes ratchets up the tension. And for 80 out of the film's 91 minutes, the tension never dies. It just keeps building, and growing, and it becomes unbearable after awhile.

Director Alfonso Cuaron has constructed the sci-fi thriller of our time. It's not just the visual effects or the aforementioned intimacy he creates by having us all experience the film through Ryan Stone. The greatest stroke of his genius is the way he's able to craft this story, constantly raising the stakes. Each time Ryan Stone manages to get out of a jam, she finds herself with yet another impossible task. Cuaron just absolutely refuses to relent, refuses to give us a moment to catch our breath. Keep in mind, throughout this entire time, Cuaron and his crew are using brand new technology in order to capture all these images. The way he's able to craft this film completely astounds me. Like he did with "Children of Men," you can't help but wonder how some of these shots are even done. How is he able to do these things? He's not merely a director, he's a magician.

Back to the intimacy. "Gravity" is epic in many ways, but through it all, this is an intimate story of one character's struggle to survive despite seemingly impossible circumstances. Often, Cuaron forces us to view the film strictly through Ryan Stone's eyes, this frightened Mission Control specialist. She, like the audience, is trapped in this situation and has no idea how to get out of it. And by making this such an intimate experience, everything that we see looks that much more immaculate. Whether it's earth, the sun, the space shuttles, the debris, or even the characters in their suits. It all looks so goddamn real. And by keeping the focal point of the film on the main character, and not on all these other things, it really amplifies the experience.

No matter how photorealist everything looks, if we were merely shown all these things without a specific perspective, it would be easy to take yourself out of this world. Even in 3D. It looks amazing, but it's outer space. What's that got to do with me? They're just pretty images. But Cuaron keeps the entire film locked into Ryan's perspective and we're barely given much time to really enjoy everything we're seeing. Earth, the stars, the shuttles... they're all around us at all times. They're just there. They're never really pointed out to us overtly, barring a few moments here and there, they're often just in the background. So you're not just thinking "oh what pretty images," it actually becomes ingrained into your viewing experience. It's slipped in. You're as close to being in this movie as you'll ever get. It's amazing.

Sandra Bullock is stellar in the film. She gives a very physical performance and considering the fact that she spends the majority of this film in a space suit, it's incredible how she's able to humanize this character. If there's one aspect of the film that's "lacking," it's characterization. We don't really get to know all that much about these characters. But, that's not due to a defect in the script, it's due to the nature of this story. This is a tight 91-minute space thrill ride. The pacing is non-stop. There's no time to get background checks here. We know just enough about Ryan and Matt for us to work the rest out ourselves. Because this story is told so intimately, we are able get to know this character from a visual standpoint. By the end, it doesn't matter how much we know about Ryan. We just had an experience with her.

And that's what "Gravity" is, it's an experience. I can't help but marvel at this film, it's an incredible achievement. It's a film that takes a person's will to live to another level. It's a film that really tests what it means to be alive. Space is completely unforgiving. We live here on Earth and, obviously, are given everything we need to live. What if it was all taken away? What if we were surrounded by bleak loneliness? The image of Earth behind Ryan starts to haunt you by the end of "Gravity" as it's always visible when Ryan is out space-walking yet actually making it to Earth feels more and more like an impossibility. This film is not merely a method for Alfonso Cuaron and his crew to test out all their new visual effects toys, Cuaron has crafted a film that is rife with meaning and emotion. Beyond that, it's a film that showcases remarkable vision and craft. Combine those aspects with Bullock's powerful performance and you have the ultimate cinematic experience.

Grade: A+

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