Friday, October 4, 2013

Review: "Gravity" is a Beautiful, Intense and Meditative Ride Through Space

Sandra Bullock
There are few films that get released in any given year that manage to feel like more than another great movie. There's a specific class that reaches above the echelon and joins the class of iconic, groundbreaking films that shape the way that cinema is perceived. Nowadays, it is easy to take it for granted with films like Life of Pi pushing the boundaries of what narrative storytelling and CGI can do when properly blended together. Even harder is to find a film on a large scale with minimalist interaction in wide open spaces that manage to feel simultaneously claustrophobic as well as gut wrenching, full of suspense... and that's just the story. For director Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, he takes sci-fi to someplace new, and all just right outside the cusp of Earth's atmosphere.

Everything that needs to be known about Gravity is presented in the first shot. Panning from a view of the Earth, everything slowly comes into place. We see wisecracking Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) talking to Houston (Ed Harris) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) fixing repairs on their ship. In a single take, we get character introductions, enough back story for the proceedings to work, and the catalyst that throws the film into hyper drive. 

If this sounds like a lot to say in one take, it is because Cuaron is the master of trick photography. His camera moves like a floating being throughout space, rarely staying still and capturing the scale of the intergalactic disaster while never losing sight of its characters, notably Stone. With everything consistently spinning and tension rising thanks to the Steven Price score, this is probably the most entertaining, scary, emotional roller coaster of a space film that has been seen in the past decade. Nothing can be stopped and without sound, the images leave a haunting trail.

The story itself isn't particularly exciting. It is  a tale of survival with a journey to get from point to point in order to survive. Even then, Cuaron has managed to make it into something engaging with consistent obstacles that could damage the plot within minutes. His treatment of space is surreal and leaves the plot open for an anything goes tactic. With limited casts and almost nothing outside of motion, it is easy for this to turn into a Paul Greengrass, handheld technique that would create motion sickness. In fact, it is a lot slicker. Even when there are close-up shots of the actors' faces, screaming heedlessly through space while spiraling, there is a sense that the abyss is around the corner and not a big, blurred pile of stars. Everything is shot so clearly that it amps up the emotion, especially as it focuses more on Stone.

The main draw of the film is the idea of a minimalist cast and what happens when you're forced to deal with something outside of your wheelhouse. There are no re-do's in Gravity. If something gets destroyed, you are left floating into death once your oxygen runs out. This is a film that explores the will of the human spirit and desire to survive. It also explores the effects of isolation and abandonment in a chaotic fashion that add an element of personal fear into the ending. We come to care about Stone and want her to survive, even if she has to float from space station to space station and through hurdles to do so. By placing an intimate, mostly single-person drama at the center of this, it manages to become spiritual, hopeful, and exciting in unexpected ways. Gravity is a great title simply because it is the quest for it. Only in the final minute do we actually get the goal, and all the affirmation needed.

Besides Cuaron's amazing camerawork, which will probably be dissected to death and influence every type of film for the next few decades, there is the core of this movie: Sandra Bullock. While George Clooney provides moments of wit, his time on screen is relatively slimmer and the action rests on the shoulders of a woman who knows a lot, but couldn't survive on her own. In most other hands, Bullock's panic as she flies through space would seem like a gimmick. Instead, as the film's second shot, we buy that she is growing weary and scared. She becomes vulnerable and as we come to know about her, she becomes more human than specifically astronaut. While the dialogue is problematic, the meaning packs a punch and makes her triumph all the more worthwhile. Her tender, quivering voice makes all the obstacles scarier. The fact that a good portion of the film is shot similar to that of a Sergio Leone film: facial close-ups means that we have a good amount of time looking at her cry. She sells every second without ever turning into a borderline parody.

As a whole, this film is more breathtaking on a technical level. With the camera floating through the air and spinning images, the spacial feel has never felt more alive. Cuaron, who we last saw with the equally amazing Children of Men, continues to prove that even if his stories don't always work, he is essentially one of the great directors. His films captivate you and takes sci-fi to a more human place. It only gets sweeter when you consider all the single takes and camera flourishes that he puts into the film. He may not be at all prolific, but that is possibly what makes him more revered. His projects feel personal. With Gravity, he turned a space opera into an intimate necessity to survive. It isn't just horror or psychological: it is human emotion. The fact that it is just surrounded by peril on every side just makes it all the more fascinating.

Gravity is a triumph of cinema that should be seen on a big screen, in a packed theater preferred. The atmospheric, emotional intensity of the piece makes every beat that more exciting and having it set in space opens up the abyss in a beautiful, strange way. At its relatively short length of 90 minutes, it whisks by and rarely stops to let you catch your breath. It is pure entertainment cinema done amazingly right in ways that are sure to leave you guessing. It is suspenseful, exciting, and just beautiful. Bullock turns in one of her career's best performances and in doing so, asks us what needs to be done to have more intimate stories on grand scales be this successful.

Left to right: Bullock and George Clooney
I am still skeptical that the Academy is going to give Gravity its fair shake. Despite my skepticism, there is some hope. Statistics website Gold Derby currently has it listed at third in the Best Picture race with odds of 8:1. The race is still early, but that is a rather comforting sign. It isn't like Alfonso Cuaron is a newbie to the Oscars, as he has been nominated three times, though never for directing. Still, I have strong skepticism that a sci-fi film could possibly stand a chance in the race, just because they have never won (though they have been nominated). Even with the boost of two Oscar winning stars, I have always felt like the odds are against it. Somehow Cloud Atlas failed to even get nominated with far more pedigree.

Of course, that is only if you look at Gravity as a genre film. I know that I have complained that its story isn't strong, and the Academy tends to dislike shorter films, but I think that it could survive on sheer technical skill. If Gravity doesn't at very least get technical nominations, I will be furious. However, there is the sense that this is a groundbreaking film. Almost everyone who has seen it has loved it. James Cameron calls it the best space movie ever. Speaking of, Cameron was previously nominated for Best Picture for Avatar, which was sci-fi on a considered groundbreaking scale. I believe that if the film has any chance at landing Best Picture, it will be because of the technical merits and storytelling skills. It is just too beautiful to ignore.

There's the issue of Best Director. With exception to maybe Park Chan-Wook's directing in Stoker, I haven't seen a film with this much personality and authentic talent in terms of directing this year. While I pin Ron Howard for Rush to get in, it was a boring film that lacked the chemistry that was present in Gravity. Even the first shot of this film, which sets up the entire premise, is probably going to go down as one of those great first takes alongside Touch of Evil and The Godfather. It is a shame that Cuaron got ignored for Children of Men, but hopefully Gravity strikes enough of an audience to fix that. Even if it turns out that Gravity had to go Best Director or  Best Picture, I would rather see the former, largely because it is deserving beyond compare. Gold Derby currently has Cuaron at third in Best Director with odds of 9:2. While I know that 12 Years a Slave is the film to beat so far, I feel the competition would only be strong if Cuaron was going up against it.

The other category that I believe this film should get more of a trajectory in is Best Actress. While I had no comprehension of why Sandra Bullock was getting buzz when I was going into the film, I understand it coming out. As I have stated, George Clooney almost serves as exposition before being ignored. A good 70% of the film is a dissection of Bullock trying to survive. It is one of those performances that may just seem like crying and panicking, but at the core, it is a vulnerable character with a lot of charisma. We don't get much of a physical performance outside of the face, yet the fear is translated perfectly. In fact, Gold Derby has her listed in second with odds of 4:1 behind surefire front runner so far Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine with odds of 8:5. Even if she isn't as great as Blanchett, that is already a very strong two front runners.

I am unsure that Gravity will change the course of sci-fi films at the Academy, but I do have more faith that it should be prominently present. What Cuaron has given us after a seven year absence is nothing short of a space opera that may have some flaws, but to focus on them would be to ignore the beauty and effort of the entire package. It is a reminder that studio fare could actually produce something thought provoking and life-changing. I am confident that this will at very least be one of the films that will be imitated for years to come, and that alone justifies its existence in being taken seriously for nominations.

Is Gravity going to pull some surprise nominations? Will Alfonso Cuaron finally get a Best Director nod? Will the impact that it has had on cinephiles influence voters at all?

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