Monday, October 14, 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Running Time: 91 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
It's best to get all the misconceptions you've been hearing about Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity out of the way before it can be appreciated for what it actually is. And a "game-changer" it isn't. There have already been many 3D movies and now it's likely there will be even more. Some might be better. Most will probably be worse. And it definitely doesn't have anything in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a comparison that certainly doesn't do the film any favors. No mysteries or questions about human existence here. And there's definitely dialogue (arguably too much) within the first twenty minutes and well beyond. It only fits into the science fiction genre in so far as the lengths it stretches plausibility. Yet Apollo 13 doesn't seem like an entirely apt comparison either. It's a straight-ahead human survival story. Think of it as Cast Away in space.
What Gravity does is accurately convey, like very few films before it, is the look and feel of what it's like to be stranded in outer space. If you ever are, you better hope you're not as ill-equipped as NASA medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who's accompanied on her first shuttle mission by seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalksi (George Clooney), commanding his final mission. And it's a relief she is because it's kind of perplexing, given her lack of knowledge, how anyone thought she'd be able to do this. That's at least a stretch I'm willing to concede because everything else Gravity does well, it does REALLY well. It's 3D how it should be done. Visual effects how they should be done. There's never any doubt what we're watching is completely authentic, even if what we're feeling occasionally doesn't match up. From a story standpoint, I just wish Cuarón would have left more up to the imagination instead of spelling it all out. But everything else is perfect, adding to the frustration of how close it is to being the masterpiece everyone's hailing it as.
The film opens with a 13-minute unbroken shot as plans to service the Hubble Space telescope are aborted when Russian satellite debris hurl toward the shuttle Explorer, killing all crew members except for Stone and Kowalski, who have lost all communications with Mission Control (voiced briefly by Ed Harris in a clever Apollo 13 nod). Eventually, another dangerous situation arises and they're separated, forcing Stone to fend for herself without Kowalski's guidance. It's to the film's credit that all of this happens very quickly, barely giving us (or literally in Stone's case), an opportunity to breathe. To rest of the movie belongs to Bullock, whose protagonist is not only losing oxygen fast, but must decide whether to wait out a rescue that might never come.
Stone's an emotional mess, which is kind of a departure from what we've come to expect from female leads put into action predicaments. This isn't Ripley from Alien. Not by a longshot. The movie breaks the mold by painting her as a sensitive, scared human being, with the screenplay going to great lengths to hammer that home with a rather weepie backstory that seems distractingly at odds with the cold, sterile nature of the journey we're on. It would have been far more affecting had we known absolutely nothing about her, letting Bullock fill in all the blanks with the performance. That they return to this personal detail multiple times, occasionally during some of the most suspenseful sequences, is a head-scratcher. That this creative blunder hasn't gotten much attention can be chalked up to how much is done right in depicting her fight for survival. This really kicks in when Stone boards the space station and must formulate a plan.
The space station scenes are not only extraordinary for their technical detail (the likes of which really haven't been seen since 2001) and sound, but the nailbiting resulting from Stone battling the elements and the clock. The phrase "It has to be seen in 3D" seems especially applicable, and anyone unconvinced need only watch the embarrassingly awful trailers that come before this film, in which the sloppily executed technology literally adds nothing to the experience other than some murkiness and a potential migraine. Short of putting audiences in a zero gravity simulator, Cuarón seamlessly replicates the feeling of floating in space alongside Dr. Stone. A particular highlight is first person POV shots where can actually see the display screens and reflections through her helmet.
If Bullock's somewhat unfairly maligned Oscar-winning role in The Blind Side fit comfortably into her wheelhouse and played to all her perceived strengths as a performer, this represents as far a departure from that as possible. Maybe the first time we've been asked to take her dead seriously in a super-challenging dramatic role, minus the fluffy baggage that usually accompanies her name as a headliner. The role is also surprisingly physical, dispelling myths that effects-heavy films don't require as much from the actor, as her character unmistakably takes an emotional and physical beating for nearly the entire picture. In one memorable scene, it's plainly obvious the commitment Bullock made to getting into the best physical shape possible for what ends up being a surprisingly grueling part. That's not to sell short the contribution of Clooney, which is greater than it's gotten credit for. As the clear-headed voice of reason and diplomacy early on, he's a perfect counter to her, valuably explaining away leaps of logic in the script we wouldn't believe coming from another, less credible actor. He's also very funny, providing the few moments of levity in a perilous situation.
If there's any flaw in the depiction of Ryan Stone, it should be attributed to Cuarón, who unwisely leans too heavily on the character emoting (whining?) about how scared she is and that no one will miss her if she's gone. While it may all be true, it should have been implied rather than flat-out stated, and he should have trusted Bullock to convey that personal history without words, just as she does everything else. I was secretly kind of hoping for the approach that was taken with Jessica Chastain's Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, in which the heroine's portrayed as an emotionless machine who doesn't crack until that final cathartic scene. Because the movie waited so long and earned that moment, it's silently devastating. There's none of that here, as it's all emoting all the time with Stone. She's definitely not a strong, competent character which isn't a flaw as much as a creative choice that will play better for some than others. Still, it's inescapable to not point out that the movie is telling us how to feel through this character when a more restrained approach was probably called for. There's no room for sentimentality in a story like this.
Even as suspenseful and well-paced as Gravity is, there was never any doubt how it would finish. And I'm not sure it's the right ending, given how the rest of the picture prides itself on pinpoint accuracy and technical mastery. By the third act, events definitely take a detour into "Movieland," which should give you an idea how things wrap up. Certain films just scream out for, if not necessarily nihilistic endings, ones that are at least open for interpretation or discussion. This clearly should have been one of those, but Cuarón takes the easy way out, preventing the film from being all it could. Given the commitment to stark realism in every other department of this production, it's tough to justify his decision.
If nothing else, this represents a big step forward for 3D, even if remains to be seen what will be left of the story on the small screen without the benefit of the quick high this presentation provides. If it "needs" to be seen in 3D it'll also be interesting to watch how many movies will try to piggy back on its success and attempt to cash in, much like we witnessed in Avatar's wake. A major technical accomplishment any way you look at it, Gravity raises the question as to how much a film should be judged by its quality versus the actual experience of watching it. It's not all it could be, but it's undeniably a smart entry into the genre that deserves to be seen and admired for the many things it gets right.