Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Gravity of Gravity

*A Spoiler Free Review Of Gravity*

When this summer began, I had sort of a mental list of films that I wanted to see on the big screen. Being without regular income as well as having a decent home entertainment system means that going to a cinema is like going out for a fine dining experience. Summer can be extra tough because they tend to pack in a lot of blockbuster big budget films that tend to look better on a larger screen. So I chose the films that I would see in advance, noting director, subject, cast and potential big screen pay off.

In wrapping up my summer viewing, I've decided on a fine dining analogy. Each film being compared to a portion of a nice meal. The opening cocktail was Iron Man 3. Not bad. Listed as a house special. It more or less confirmed my expectations and set me up nicely for the appetizer. The Wolverine was that appetizer. Better than it's predecessor but nothing to really rave about. It was good enough to whet my appetite. There were side dishes of Elysium and Star Trek Into Darkness. Elysium was like some finely done broccoli. It was great broccoli, but in the end, it's still just a vegetable. You can only get so much out of it on it's own. Star Trek though was like some kick ass mashed potatoes infused with garlic and thyme and topped with fresh sour cream. Doesn't matter that it's full of carbs and fat, you want more. For dessert, Pacific Rim was like an amazing banana split, covered in whipped cream, cherries, fudge, caramel and strawberry sauce. It was a ridiculously overloaded sugary mess devoid of nutritional value. I ate every single bite with a stupid smile on my face.

But I left out the main course. That main course was Gravity. Gravity was like a filet mignon and when I walked away from my meal, it was the only thing I really ended up remembering (well, that and the dessert). Gravity is a film like few others and it makes total sense that it comes Alfonso Cuaron. The man is quickly ascending a list of crucially important directors that are taking the torch from the last generation of epic filmmakers like Scorcese, Spielberg and Kubrick. With Gravity, Cuaron took a bold step into rare narrative territory and thankfully, the studio execs gambled on that step. Gravity is the kind of film that when you finish it, it's easy to wonder how it ever got released in this Transformers/Romantic Comedy/Miley Cyrus culture.

Let's start with something a few folks have complained about. The characterization is thin. I didn't say poor, I said thin. In this case, deep characterization would have taken away from the immediacy and the urgency of the film. More importantly, I believe it would have detached us a bit from the characters. The film is the story of two astronauts, Ryan and Stone. No spoilers there. But if the film spent hours with flashbacks or deep backgrounds or love interests, it would pull the viewer away from the here and now. The entire film takes place over the course of about four hours in the characters world. If you stop that kind of momentum for character development, it doesn't just slow the film down, it does something else crucially bad. It lets you realize that you are not those astronauts. Few of us have gone into space and this film, by giving us few personal details about these astronauts, actually helps pull you into these characters suits by giving us less detail about them.

Instead, it presents us with the grandeur, the beauty and the terrifying expanse that is space. Not since Avatar have I seen such a fine use of 3D and I can't recommend seeing it that way on an IMAX screen enough. It's vitally important to getting the maximum effect. Some folks really enjoy the 'how to' of filmmaking, and as a filmmaker myself, I sometimes do too. However, while I'm watching a film, I like to forget all that and feel like I'm there. Never have I felt as much like I'm in space as I did while watching Gravity.

Cuaron likes long single takes. Although this film really begins to blur the lines of CG, green screen and motion capture to the point where 'single take' somewhat loses its meaning, the effect on the viewer is the same. The opening shot, roughly three minutes long, is so vast, so mind blowingly beautiful, so breathtaking that it actually brought a tear to my eye.  Few scenes in cinema or television have been able to do that to me.

But the beauty of space and the awe inspiring views are matched in this film by the sheer terror and helplessness one can feel when entirely out of their element. Nothing on Earth can match the vulnerability one has in space. Even deep under the ocean, a human can at least still swim or hold their breath. In space, there's simply no margins for error. Space isn't just a thorny rose, it's a rose made of razor blades and rusted barb.

The film is 90 minutes long and it feels like twice that. Not because of boredom, but because of tension and outright panic. The last time I was truly that white knuckled was seeing Blackhawk Down on the big screen for the first time. My heart rate was through the roof almost the entire 90 minutes  of Gravity and my hand was sweaty and tired from squeezing my girlfriend's to the point of pain.

There are a few minor nitpicks about science, but I will say that I believe they were not things that were overlooked or forgotten. I feel like Cuaron sacrificed them for the sake of story and drama. This is supposed to feel real (and boy does it), but it's not supposed to be a documentary. 95% of folks out there will never know what little inconsistencies or errors there are in the film because they blend so effortlessly with the rest.

As for the acting, I'll say this: I'm not a Sandra Bullock fan and I didn't like George Clooney until O Brother Where Art Thou? I appreciated that Bullock wasn't glammed up or made sexual in anyway in the film and it was a bold step for her as an actress. This role was a gutsy choice for someone known for their light comedy roles. She delivered just fine. In fact, despite the rest of the glory of the film, it would have failed entirely if we didn't by into Bullock's Ryan. This is her story and she managed to pull out an excellent performance (maybe even Oscar worthy). Clooney was what he needed to be in this film, which was a box drawn around Bullock. Clooney defines Bullock's fish out of water character by being the astronaut who's done it all and seen it all. It gives us a framework for our own fears and inexperience with that environment.

Yet as frightening as this tale is, as much as people might leave the theater saying, "Aw hell no, I'm not going into space!", this is a tale about humans reaching and moving beyond what nature has given us. It's about us aspiring to something more and being willing to step into the dark without a flashlight. We do it with fear and trembling legs and a quivering stomach, but we do it.

Cuaron has given us what I believe to be the best film of the year so far. It's a complete immersion in fear and panic for an hour and a half that celebrates everything that's good and right about humanity.

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