Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
Written by: Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron
Starring: Sandra Bullock & George Clooney
James Cameron: “I think it’s the best space photography ever done, I think it’s the best space film ever done, and it’s the movie I’ve been hungry to see for an awful long time.”
Buzz Aldrin: “I was so extravagantly impressed by the portrayal of the reality of zero gravity. Going through the space station was done just the way that I’ve seen people do it in reality. The spinning is going to happen — maybe not quite that vigorous — but certainly we’ve been fortunate that people haven’t been in those situations yet. I think it reminds us that there really are hazards in the space business, especially in activities outside the spacecraft.”
Quentin Tarantino has named Gravity one of the top ten best films of 2013 so far.
When a filmmaker spends four years of his life (mainly to invent technology to make his film possible!) defying what has come before to make a bold, impactful statement in cinema, you breathlessly anticipate a generation-defining experience on the scale of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Pulp Fiction. With Gravity, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron has done what so precious few filmmakers have ever done: he has crafted a blockbuster type of story and infused it with an art-house sensibility to create an experimental thrill ride that has set a new benchmark of excellence. Its astounding to look back at Alfonso Cuaron’s American career beginning with a little children’s film called A Little Princess, then diving into low-budget foreign fare with Y Tu Mama Tambien, switching to a franchise blockbuster with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and now vying for James Cameron’s crown with a huge sci-fi artsy/commercial studio picture. Filmmaker Ang Lee is the only director I can think of who has displayed an ability to adeptly traverse across an eclectic diversity of genres and styles of cinematic storytelling.
Gravity’s plot is stunningly simplistic and I do not mean that in a derogatory way. Unknown actress Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a rookie astronaut on her first mission to install a new experimental instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope. Accompanying her on the mission is Matt Kowalski, played by another unknown actor, George Clooney. During the mission, the astronauts receive word that the Russians have fired a missile into a satellite and now the debris from the satellite is heading toward the astronauts at the velocity of a speeding bullet. Unfortunately, the astronauts are unable to avoid the satellite debris in time. Their shuttle is destroyed and the two astronauts are hurled out into space. With depleting oxygen and with more satellite debris headed their way, the astronauts must quickly figure out how to survive and get back to Earth.
The baseline understanding of Gravity is that it is fantastic and groundbreaking. Like with such films as Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon, Gravity is designed to be viewed in IMAX and 3D. With that said, this is a film that as spectacular as it is in terms of technology and thrills on the big screen, it is one whose seams will be a lot more apparent if you watch it on the small screen. Furthermore, once you have seen Gravity once, it will have less repeat watchability because you will know what happens and that sense of dreaded anticipation that makes the film so fun to watch will be gone.
Since watching Gravity, I have spent more time defending the casting choices of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney than anything else that pertains to this film. I too have never been a big fan of Sandra Bullock’s performances or her film choices. I cannot say the same for George Clooney, who may not have a wide range when it comes to acting, but the quality of his films cannot be denied (e.g. The Descendants, The Ides of March, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air, Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton, Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck). With that said, allow me to dispel any of your reasonable notions that no film featuring these actors can be any good. This may be my first and very last time that I will sing the praises of Sandra Bullock’s performance. Playing the role of a mother who lost her daughter in an accident and now spends her life buried in her work to forget the pain, Bullock does a fine job conveying the pain and loneliness of her character. Mind you, my approval of her performance is less an approval and more of a pleasant surprise that I finally got to see Bullock deliver a performance I could tolerate and respect. As for Clooney, admittedly, he puts forth the same schtick he has done in just about every movie he’s ever done (including Syriana, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). I don’t find anything wrong with that. Just like with other famous actors who have generally delivered the same type of performance, you either respond to it or you don’t.
Putting their performances aside, I was disappointed that Bullock’s character basically amounted to another stereotypical female. Dr. Ryan Stone was prone to emotionality and fear. She was inexperienced. When faced with a problem, her first response was to lock up and panic, and we almost never saw her approach a situation calmly and with intelligence. I wish we could have seen more of a heroine instead of someone who simply pauses, reflects, and waits for the next disaster to strike, and when that disaster comes, she is unprepared. And not surprisingly, when she decides to totally give up and die, the film “resurrects” the male character so that he can push her to move onward.
A big issue with thrill ride films like Gravity and Jurassic Park is that the technology overtakes the story. Sometimes, as with these two examples, the technology is ground-breaking and exciting enough to dwarf any issues the movie may have, such as the lack of a complex narrative. That is not to say that Gravity’s story is weak. Alfonso Cuaron is known as a visual storyteller and you see that skill displayed here, in which the dialogue is secondary to the visuals in terms of telling the story. By the way, the opening of Gravity is probably the best use of silence I have ever seen – it perfectly sets the tone of the entire film. In addition, it is a testament to the filmmaker’s storytelling skill that despite the fact that 80-90% of Gravity is all CG, you will never once be distracted by the technology or, alternatively, be drawn by it to the detriment of what is narratively going on in the film.
In terms of the technical craft that went into making Gravity, I can’t say much more than what I have already said. Cuaron boldly commits to the idea that what we will see is not a fictionalized/fantasy version of space that we see in every other space movie, but that the outer space our story takes place in is the real thing. Hence, there is no sound other than the voices of our characters. When there is an explosion, you do not hear it. Cuaron accomplishes creating a space that comes off feeling airless, isolated, and hermitic. Supplementing the sound design is Steven Price’s fantastic score, which perfectly marries the silence of space. Furthermore, Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki should be credited with creating instantly iconic shots and compositions that will forever be hailed as essential additions to space-set filmmaking. Now not being a fan of 3D, I was also relieved that for once someone was able to make good use of the format. The 3D is never overwhelming. It is used judiciously and sparingly, frequently to heighten the emotional moments rather than serve as a battering ram of laser pyrotechnics.
Gravity may not have the philosophical ambition of 2001, the space adventure to which it is most often being compared to. However, fairness demands that we recognize this film for trying to be something else. With its deliberately archetypal characters and chewy dialogue, Gravity feels a lot like something James Cameron would have made and that is an enormous compliment to make. In short, Gravity is a brilliant, unerringly entertaining thriller that will make you believe in the higher power of movies, of how a giant screen, a darkened room, and a story can take you to places you can’t even imagine. As a fun little tidbit of information, the voice of Mission Control is Ed Harris, who played Flight Director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13.