Monday, October 7, 2013

Gravity (***1/2)

Produced and Directed by Alfonso Cuaron


Should be said before we begin here, I only saw this movie in plain ol' 2D, and while I've been told that I only captured a fraction of the film's brilliant visual experience, I still found the film's effects to be staggering. Thought it best to get that off my chest before we're in too deep.

Gravity opens with text meant to reinforce how terrifying outer space is. It seemed like the kind of thing added self-consciously at the last minute because the last thing this movie needs is a list of factoids explaining why the events that are about to unfold are truly, down-to-the-marrow scary. And this is a movie that truly embraces its setting, acknowledging both its unmatched beauty and the unending threat of horrible, suffocating death. With the exception of that opening text, Alfonso Cuaron's latest movie is incredibly confident in its translation of that constant contradiction. It never fools itself that the silent grace of space is anything other than a siren's song coaxing many into an imminent death trap. This delicate balance produces what will probably be the most stress-inducing movie theater experience of the year and a visual wonder, suckering you into the majestic vastness of space all the while reminding you how frightening it can be.

This is the first film from Alfonso Cuaron since 2006's Children of Men which was one of the best films of the last twenty-five years, if not all time. Both movies share that complicated mix of: anxious, end-of-the-world helplessness supplied by it-only-gets-worse plot progression; and sentimental, life-affirming, will-of-humanity sensibility to leave the audience feeling a little bit better about what they saw (I'll do my best to not use another hyphen throughout this piece). The screenplay to Gravity was written by Cuaron and his son Jonas Cuaron, which might explain the film's seeming need to reinforce its main character with a parental complex. The film has been in the works several years, rotating leading ladies from Angelina Jolie to Natalie Portman before finally settling on Sandra Bullock. It's an inspired choice, I think, considering that despite her Oscar win in 2009 (won in part because her success has made a lot of people a lot of money, and less to do with her actual performance in the abhorrent Blind Side) Bullock has never been given this kind of challenge.

Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a bio-medical engineer who turns to NASA since she knows that they won't cut her budget. On her first space shuttle mission, she travels alongside veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a smart aleck charmer who happens to be on his very last space mission. Kowalski is instructed to guide Stone toward the Hubble Space Telescope for standard maintenance repairs, which begins smoothly; Kowalski listening to country music in his helmet, telling Mardi Gras stories to Houston and Stone, floating around the telescope while Stone continues her work on Hubble. Trouble brews as Houston warns that debris from a Russian anti-satellite mission is causing a chain reaction of ricocheting debris heading straight in their direction. Kowalski pleads with Stone to put a bow on her mission and she tries as hards as she can, but before they can hurry to safety, they and their space shuttle are struck by hundreds of hurtling debris flying faster than the speed of a bullet.

That entire sequence is shown to us in one fluid shot that takes up most of the first twenty minutes of the movie. We know from Cuaron's previous films (Children of Men is his masterpiece, but Y tu Mama Tambien is a pretty amazing film as well) that he's capable of long, sprawling takes that can showcase his unmatched skill without seeming like he's showing off. But the work in Gravity is a new peak, the camera constantly floating around, unafraid to shoot upside down for large portions of the film, frequently putting the audience in a constant physical imbalance. You might find yourself holding onto your seat cause you're afraid to slip out. Cuaron's frequent partnership with the equally masterful cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who has shot all but one of Cuaron's features, the exception being 2003's Harry Potter installation, Prisoner of Azkaban) is one of the all-time greatest alliances in cinematic history, and Gravity could very well be their crescendo. Even in the flatness of 2D, it's hard to imagine a better made movie coming out this year.

This is definitely the most challenging role of Bullock's long, incredibly lucrative career. Though I'm not sure if it's her greatest performance. There seems to be some kind of channeling of Sigourney Weaver's work in the Alien films, right down to the pixie cut and short shorts. So much of the movie falls on her shoulders, and a lot of close-ups ask her to express quite a whole lot of terror and anguish with just a look. It's terrific work considering the amount of pressure that both Bullock and Ryan Stone are under simultaneously, even if the performance is not earth shattering. One of the few disappointing qualities of this film is how it so heavy-handedly gives Ryan Stone such a garden variety "find the will to live" character arc that it doesn't give Bullock as much space to find her own within that character, so she just plays the script straight. Clooney, on the other hand, gives one of those effortless performances where it seems like he just threw the screenplay out the window, displaying the lover boy persona that we've all loved to see him play these last few decades. And he actually looks like Buzz Lightyear without much effort.

The contrast between Clooney's loose performance and Bullock's stern discipline adds a great deal to the characters' dynamic and how we see them, and if there's something else that we can give Cuaron credit for it's dedicating more time to character than most studio directors are willing to. People forget that it was his Harry Potter film, Prisoner of Azkaban, that transitioned the trajectory of that franchise from cheeky children's films to impressive displays of the challenges of young adulthood. Cuaron understands the most basic rule of cinema: people care more about the story if they care more about the people within the story. Bullock's Ryan Stone is the only character provided with anything close to a back story, but it's the way Stone and Kowalski deal with both each other and their merciless setting that tells us who they are. And Cuaron knows how to tell this story visually, to put these torments across with such technical expertise that it's hard to think of another filmmaker who can do this as well. Paul Thomas Anderson comes close, but he's not as good as this.

I'm not sure I've anticipated a movie as highly as Gravity since last year's The Master (as a loyal P.T. Anderson fanboy, he will always be appointment viewing for me). The two films were made by arguably the two greatest contemporary filmmakers, and both films felt like two maestros recreating their most unrelenting visions, constructing the exact movie that they wanted to make. Obviously, Cuaron's movies have always had a softer tact regarding commerciality and Gravity blasted its way toward a record-breaking first weekend at the box office, and while Gravity was hyped as the 2001: A Space Odyssey for the millennial generation, this movie is a lot closer to James Cameron than Stanley Kubrick. And I don't exactly say that with a negative connotation - Cameron's filmmography has become associated with shameless studio capitalism, but it's silly to ignore his skill as a filmmaker. Gravity is a notch bellow Children of Men and even a notch below The Master, and I don't quite buy this movie as a continuation of an auteur's vision. This was a spectacle made specifically for the popcorn-consuming public, and it's a pretty perfect spectacle at that.

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