First, a little note to all the friends and family members who’ve been harassing me for the past few weeks: YES! I’M REVIEWING GRAVITY! STOP ASKING ALREADY!
Really, how could I not give this film a watch? Aside from the jaw-dropping trailers and posters, and even without the superb critical hype, this is an Alfonso Cuaron movie. It was directed by the same guy who made Y Tu Mama Tambien (a wonderful movie with a great gut-punch of an ending), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (arguably the best film in that franchise), and Children of Men (a masterpiece by any standard).
I went into this movie the first chance I got, and I didn’t settle for anything less than the full 3D IMAX treatment. My expectations were sky-high for this movie. But as it turns out, my expectations weren’t nearly high enough. Cuaron didn’t just knock this one out of the park, he knocked it into the goddamned stratosphere.
The premise is very simple. We follow two astronauts who go out into space to put some new equipment on the Hubble telescope. One of them is Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who devised the new medical diagnostic technology that’s been repurposed by NASA for space exploration. It’s her invention, so she’s the one who has to install it, but her zero-gravity training was admittedly rather rushed. So, she’s accompanied by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a seasoned veteran who’s been trying for decades to break the record for humanity’s longest spacewalk. For extra measure, NASA sent a spiffy new jetpack for Kowalski to test out as long as he’s up there.
Unfortunately, the Russians send up a missile to dispose of an old satellite. It’s totally routine and completely harmless to our crew, except that the explosion sets off a chain reaction that releases a whole lotta debris. From there, everything hits the fan.
The rest of the film is 90 minutes of things going wrong. Absolutely everything that can go wrong in outer space does go wrong. How bad do things get? I’ll put it to you this way: You know how directors like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich like to blow up landmarks in their movies? That’s basically how Cuaron treats famous non-fictional craft that are currently in geosynchronous orbit. They all get completely destroyed, and we’re there to watch every mesmerizing detail of it.
The effects in this movie are jaw-dropping from start to finish. It’s been a long, long time since I had this much trouble figuring out where the real sets ended and the CGI effects began. Everything about this movie is tactile and authentic, though it certainly helps that so much of this movie depends on zero-gravity physics and the characters grabbing onto things for dear life. The jaw-dropping sound design and Steven Price’s atmospheric score also help bring a great sense of immersion.
Getting back to the visuals, I must commend Cuaron, who co-edited the film with Mark Sanger. These two work together with the aforementioned CGI mastery to create long continuous shots with results that are absolutely spellbinding. Hell, even when the film isn’t relying on long and continuous shots, the filmmakers still know exactly which angle to show and when.
Also, even though the film is a brisk and action-packed 90 minutes, the narrative still knows when to slow down and take a breather. Yet the slower moments are executed in such a way that they develop the characters and how hopelessly alone they feel in the void, so the film remains tense even when there’s no action going on. Strictly in terms of pacing and editing, this film is incredible.
As a final note on the visuals, I must give kudos to Emmanuel Lubezki, the director of photography. It’s bad enough that the Academy snubbed Lubezki for The Tree of Life, and I still haven’t forgiven that. But if the Oscars deny him another award this time, then those golden statuettes aren’t worth the paper the envelopes are made out of. Lubezki is a supremely skilled cameraman, and it’s damn time he got some recognition for it. I refuse to believe that this movie’s crystal-clear lighting and ingenious camera moves aren’t worth an Oscar win. There’s just no way.
Speaking of the Oscars, let’s move on to Sandra Bullock. There were many out there who decried Bullock’s Oscar win, saying that the Academy took a flimsy excuse to hand Bullock an award, flipping the bird to many worthier 2009 performances (*coughMelanieLaurentcough*) in the process. I also heard a lot of skeptics out there, doubting that Bullock had the chops to handle this material.
I admit that I was one of the naysayers. And now I feel like I owe Bullock a personal apology.
Yes, Clooney is in the movie, and he does a fine job as the mentor/comic relief. Even so, this is unquestionably Bullock’s movie. She carries it from start to finish, and she does it like a champ. She is the beating heart of this movie, every bit as responsible for its excellence as Cuaron and his effects team.
For example, it bears remembering that Stone is the novice of the crew, which means that she’s prone to panicking and hyperventilating while she’s spinning out of control in the emptiness of space. Perfectly understandable, of course. The trick, however, is that all her rapid breathing is burning through her oxygen. So the only chance she has at surviving is to calm down and think things through. It’s a neat little crisis that Bullock acts out superbly, the predicament makes for some great tension, and it’s very cleverly symbolic of the film’s greater themes as well.
I loved how the film subtly used Dr. Stone as a symbol for the entire human race. She’s out there, floating all alone and helpless in the void, just like all of us are. We’re out here on a little blue rock, hurtling through a great big dangerous universe. And when all is said and done, we’ve got no one to depend on but ourselves and each other. When shit inevitably happens, we can shut down and give up completely, or we can panic and make things even worse. Or we can apply all of our strength and intelligence, and pray that it’ll be enough.
So is the film flawless? Well, no, of course not. Though the film does generally do a good job of selling the various zero-g effects, there are times when I’m quite sure the film took certain liberties with deep-space physics. The film also has its share of plot holes and contrivances. Even so, the film generally weaves such an immersive and suspenseful tale that I had no problem suspending disbelief through some minor hiccups.
I have no problem giving Gravity my highest recommendation. The visuals are awesome, the sound design is crackerjack, Bullock turns in a breathtaking performance… the film is a masterpiece on every technical level. Even better, the story is expertly paced, with plenty to offer in terms of action, drama, suspense, and thematic depth.
Go out and see it right now. Do not hesitate to see this movie, and do not wait for the DVD. If you’ve got the option to see it in 3D and/or IMAX, spend the premium. It’s worth every cent, I promise you.
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