Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Gravity Review

With 2006's Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron got on my list of must-watch directors. Children was my favorite movie that year, largely on the strength of several virtuoso long takes that created indelible images.

So I waited for Cuaron's next film. And waited. And waited. When news of Gravity first hit, I was excited that Cuaron was working with big stars (George Clooney, Sandra Bullock) but the plot description was maddeningly thin. Astronauts get stranded in orbit? Is that all there is? As the film got closer to release, I expected more details, but that was all I got. Deep Water in space.

Surprisingly, given those expectations, Gravity turned out to be one of the largest, most satisfying theater experiences I've had in years. Running a beautifully lean 91 minutes, Gravity provides an experience that is simultaneously small movie ascetic and blockbuster luxurious.

Appropriately for a film that's about limited resources--there's only so much oxygen, so much battery power, so much of all the things the characters need to survive in the hostile void of space--Gravity's story is ruthlessly economical. There are only a handful of characters in the film,  and most of them are heard rather than seen. For the ones on camera, there's precious little time for casual discussion. The characterization and backstory are going to be scarce.

This is one of those places where hiring movie stars helps: since the audience has a relationship with the actors, it's often easier for us to fill in the missing parts of a character (particularly if the star is playing to type). So it takes us maybe two minutes into the movie to figure out who Clooney's Matt Kowalski is: he's the old pro. Gravity leverages Clooney's most consistent movie star trait, the preternatural comfort he has in his own skin, to make Kowalski a fully realized character even though there's only a few wispy strands of exposition to tell us who and what he is. With the skill of a con man, Clooney drops those bits of exposition into idle banter with mission control (Ed Harris, in another bit where the casting tells you what little you need to know about the character).

In large part by contrast, Bullock's Ryan Stone comes into focus shortly after we figure out Kowalski. She's one of the many specialists who wind up in space not because they've always yearned to experience microgravity and look at the stars but because they have some particular skill that NASA needs to deploy in orbit. She's smart and she's technically savvy, but she's completely uncomfortable in this environment. They both wear space suits and they're both on an EVA to repair the Hubble telescope, but Kowalski's an astronaut while Stone's a passenger.

And with that light dusting of setup, the movie tosses the feces at the fan. A cataclysmic event has created a deadly debris field in orbit, which quickly proves to be bad news for Kowalski and Stone:

What follows is a white knuckle ride, as the pair struggle to survive. In terms of spectacle, the disaster envisioned in Gravity is the biggest thing to hit theaters since Titanic sixteen years ago. But it's Titanic distilled to its essence, discarding all the silly subplots about giant gemstones and social status and star-crossed love, and concentrating instead on the sinking ship.

We promise, no one talks about arranged marriages in Gravity.

In the place of freezing cold water and a luxury cruiser that's breaking apart, Gravity has the void of space and the cruelty of microgravity. In a lot of ways, they could have just called it Physics: the Motion Picture. We tend to think of zero gravity as very gentle and peaceful, slow motion, like floating in a pool of water. (It's a testament to the strong sense memories Stanley Kubrick was able to create that every time I see something in zero gravity, my mind invokes the Blue Danube Waltz from 2001: a Space Odyssey.)

Gravity portrays movement in space very differently: it's a violent environment where Newton's laws of motion can be witnessed in their purest form. When people and things in Gravity start moving, there is no friction to slow them down, save what they can create by colliding with and grabbing other objects. Every time characters take action upon objects in space, they had best be ready for the equal and opposite reactions that result.

This environment, and this story, are the first great use of 3D I've seen in a theater. This is 3D not for the purpose of an interesting shot or two (which has been, to my experience, the best-case scenario of 3D movies), but to establish the spatial relationships between objects throughout the film's runtime, in a movie where those spatial relationships are all-important.

The best-known 3D effect is to have the occasional item pop forward from the screen, and Gravity has some of that. However, here the effect is often used to seemingly pull your eye past the plane of the screen to emphasize how distant or unreachable an object or destination is. Add to that the way Cuaron uses the 360 degree freedom of a virtual camera, and you get 3D images that not only provoke visceral reactions, they're also emotionally resonant. It's truly an epic accomplishment by Cuaron and his animators (the lion's share of what we see on the screen is CGI animation).

The use of 3D here puts many of this year's blockbusters to shame. I saw Iron Man 3 in 3D on the giant screen at the Ziegfeld Theater, and Star Trek Into Darkness in faux Imax 3D; I saw Gravity in a single-aisle theater in Brooklyn on a relative postage stamp of a screen, but it was a much larger experience than either of those two big properties.

Thinking back on the action setpieces of those two films, I now can't help but be struck at how unimaginatively 3D was used, particularly in STID's silly jetpack sequence.

Anyway, Gravity gets my highest recommendation. I'm hoping to catch it again while it's still in theaters, just to see if a there was more to get out of the experience in a better theater.

  • The soundtrack to Gravity--both the score and the sound effects--were wonderful. It's an interesting choice for the film to be simultaneously so rigorous in its adherence to the silence of space and also feature aggressive non-diegetic music, but the balance is really pulled off well.
  • There's been some controversy about the emotional backstory one of the characters is given. Without going into spoilers, I'll admit that yes, it is a bit of a chestnut. Still, it works in the same way that Clooney and Bullock's characters do: as shorthand so that the film doesn't have to spend its time on exposition. Some times you can get cliches to work in your favor. In a more conventional film, this and other backstory elements would have been dealt with in flashback, which would have been a devastating breach of the film's tension. Bullock and Clooney give performances powerful enough to take what could be a thin, tired story beat and turn it into something with real emotional heft.
  • There are a number of other films that would make great pairings with Gravity. Apollo 13 is the most obvious, based on the subject matter, and there are a lot of sharp contrasts between these two NASA disaster films that make Gravity almost seem like a response to that film. Another clear contrast, as mentioned in the review, is Titanic, a film that I very much like, despite my harsh words about its subplots above. However, I think the best pairing is 2001. There are so many similarities, from the use of silence to the attempt to portray space travel realistically, that that was the film I wanted to give another viewing after seeing Gravity.


  1. Fantastic review, man, I really enjoyed this film. The look, the acting, the casting, the music, 3D- everything. Couldn't catch this in IMAX which is probably my biggest regret.
    I actually saw 2001 a couple of weeks back so I would say that it's a good double feature. Actually, Children of Men would also go with this because I thought there were a number a common thematic strands running through both of them.

    If you haven't already, I would recommend watching what I consider Cuaron's first modern classic, Y Tu Mama Tambien. Such a fascinating director and his relationship with Emmanuel Lubezki is one for the ages.

    1. I love Y Tu Mama Tambien. I think Cuaron's secret weapon is that he has so much emotional range as a director. He can go from capturing all the little details in a relationship between teenage boys in Y Tu Mama Tambien to the giant spectacle you see in Gravity, Children of Men, or Prisoner of Azkhaban.

      Glad you enjoyed the review!

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