Movies Without Pity

Gravity: Something in the Air

by Ethan Alter October 4, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Gravity</i>: Something in the Air

Considering the title, it's somehow appropriate that Alfonso Cuarón's outer space thriller, Gravity, boasts the most buoyant opening sequence I've seen all year. And I'm not just talking about the space-assisted buoyancy of the central characters, medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who we meet hundreds of miles above the Earth as they're repairing a busted board on the Hubble space telescope. No, the tone of the entire sequence is what's so light and cheery; while Ryan fiddles with the Hubble, Matt floats in a wide arc around the construction site with the aid of a jet pack -- Cuarón's camera gracefully following his path without a visible cut -- cracking wise and sharing stories of his past adventures in the final frontier. All the while, Earth is looming in the background below (and sometimes above) them, beatifically beaming like an oversized nightlight. Simply put, it's a majestic scene, one that rekindles the romance of space travel that's been lost in both movies and real life over the decades. It also provides audiences with an idyllic moment of peace before things start to go wrong.

And boy, do they go wrong. Very, very wrong. Moments before Ryan is about to replace the faulty doohickey on the Hubble, Matt receives word from Ground Control (speaking in the voice of Ed Harris, veteran of two of the best real-world space movies ever made, The Right Stuff and Apollo 13) that a big cloud of space debris is sweeping their way. Moments later, the debris rips into them, destroying their shuttle, killing the other members of their crew and separating them in the silent vacuum of space. The rest of the movie is given over to their increasingly desperate attempts to make a return trip to Earth, a goal that keeps slipping out of their grip thanks to a series of unhappy accidents and just plain bad luck the exact circumstances of which I'll leave for you to discover yourself.

What I will say is that while the tone of Gravity at this point shifts from buoyant to unbearably tense, the movie never loses the sense of awe that's present in its very first scene. More than any action-packed blockbuster released so far this year (including the gargantuan-sized Pacific Rim, made by Cuarón's good buddy Guillermo Del Toro), Gravity offers scene after scene of grandly immersive spectacle that sees and raises your expectations on what the 21st century tools of cinema can accomplish when employed correctly. It's groundbreaking technique that's nevertheless tethered to classical storytelling.

Stripped down, as it is, to a trim 90 minutes, Gravity doesn't leave Cuarón and his co-writer and son Jonás, much room for backstory and complex characterizations. But we get what we need to know; Ryan is recovering from a personal tragedy that may have compromised her desire to go on living, while Matt is the cowboy type powered by derring-do and a heroic sense of sacrifice. These character traits will come into play as the duo bounce from disaster to disaster, en route to a climactic life or death decision. Truth be told, the steady string of perfectly-timed catastrophes -- with Ryan and Matt constantly finding a brief respite of peace only to have things predictably go to shit again a minute later -- does occasionally threaten to ruin the movie's attempts at realism.

But the propulsive speed at which the movie unfolds helps distract from that, as do the otherworldly visuals, which Cuarón achieved through a practically seamless mixture of practical and digital effects, including extensive computer animation. Building on the long-take style he developed in his equally dazzling 2006 film Children of Men, the director choreographs each scene with masterful precision while still allowing for a feeling of spontaneity. Replicating the "up is down, down is up" orientation of weightlessness, Cuarón's camera seems as if it has the power to be anywhere at any time and from any angle. (The major liberty he takes from actual space travel is flooding the soundtrack with music and the occasional muffled sound effect, although many of the larger bits of destruction aren't accompanied by sound. It's a cinematic convention I'm willing to cede to him, though, as the music actually makes the movie's world more immersive than total silence likely would have been.) This results in some truly remarkable staging, with scenes that defy the physics conventional filmmaking. On more than one occasion, I found myself gazing at the giant IMAX screen (and listen folks -- you really do need to experience this on an IMAX screen and in 3D as well) in open-mouthed amazement at what I was seeing.

Less amazing, I have to admit, is the somewhat predictable path the narrative travels. But that's where the performers come in, with Clooney and especially Bullock selling the emotional weight of the otherwise slender story. This is probably the actress's purest dramatic performance, one that's stripped of the cutesy accent she had in The Blind Side as well as the mannered melodrama of films like 28 Days and The Lake House. As the movie goes on, she becomes its anchor, the thing that keeps it from drifting away into the realm of pure shock and awe without any lasting resonance. It's primarily because of Bullock, for example, that I'm at peace with the film's resolution, which comes five minutes later (and with less ambiguity) than I would have liked. Overall though, the movie's missteps are few and far between. So many effects-heavy films promise to show you something you've never seen before. Gravity delivers.

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