Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, the voices of Ed Harris, Orto Ignatiussen, Phaldut Sharma
MPAA Rating: (for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 10/4/13
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 3, 2013
The first image we see in Gravity is an absolute stunner, and the film's sights only become more remarkable as it proceeds. The camera hangs suspended, with Earth on the weak side of the screen, looking toward the planet's horizon into the abyss of space that fills up the strong side of the frame. The camera moves slowly as if it were in orbit until more and more of the blue orb fills the screen, and a speck in the distance gradually gets larger until we comprehend that we are looking at the underside of a space shuttle.
It's a patient shot, and in fact, it's only the first part of an extended one-take (Technically, it's not—could not be—one, of course, but the combination of the free-roaming camera and the visual effects gives the sensation that it is) that introduces the characters, the reason they are out there, and a catastrophe that could—and, in the majority of cases, will—mean certain doom for them. We know this from common knowledge, and the film reminds us of all the perils of space exploration in the opening text. The temperature shifts dramatically from over 200 degrees to under 150 degrees below zero depending on where one is. There is neither air pressure nor oxygen. "Life in space," the film concludes, "is impossible."
As those factoids appear and disappear, Steven Price's score swells to near-deafening levels—a chorus of foreboding. After the music cue has ended and when we see that opening image of the beauty of Earth juxtaposed with nothingness of space, what strikes us first is not the visual but the silence. After so many movies over so many decades have incorrectly portrayed space as a place where sound can travel, here is a film that not only accurately gives us silence (The opening text reminds us why that it is) but also employs it as a contrast to the alternate splendor and pandemonium of the film's constant visual mavels.
Silence is also a means to the film's fundamental thematic end. If space, as we learn in the introductory text, is both silence and death, then the ultimate question is whether or not the characters will embrace the silence and, hence, death. The appeal is there for them. For one, it's jokingly a way to immortality in the form of a record that will never be broken. For the other (There are, really, only two actors in the film—not counting the voice work of others who are either off-screen or, apparently, created entirely through effects), it's an escape from the pain of being alone after tragedy.
This brings us back to that first image. On the one side—again, the weak side—is Earth, which now represents life. While the astronauts venture to the side unaffected by the sun, we can see the lights of cities—signs of life. One character repeatedly speaks of people looking up at them, and, even more telling, the present conclusion for both of these travelers is that the people they love or loved at one time are no longer doing so. On the other side of the frame—the strong side—is space and all it has come to represent.
Hovering between these states of being are our astronaut protagonists. They are in orbit around Earth on a fairly routine mission: to install hardware on the Hubble Space Telescope.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the hardware's designer, is there to do the actually installation after six months of NASA training, which included multiple attempts in a simulator that always resulted in crashing—a bit of foreshadowing for later. The mission commander, overseeing everything with the aid of a jetpack, is Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a smooth-talking, calm-headed man of authority who's quick with a story that everyone has already heard countless times. The voice of mission control (voice of Ed Harris) in Houston politely scolds him about this fact while a third astronaut launches himself from the shuttle, only to be pulled back by the tether connecting him to the craft—emitting a gleeful laugh every time.
As they go about their work, director Alfonso Cuarón's camera acts as a weightless observer, moving with smooth dexterity and seemingly limitless range. Like its subjects, the camera moves to and fro, up and down, and circling around the characters, including one brief moment in which Kowalski stops to admire the view of Earth as the camera itself does the same. There's a fluidity of shared choreography between the camera, the actors, and the visual effects (Those effects, blended with Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography, are so seamless that it becomes impossible to discern where they end and where the real, practical elements—i.e., the actors, physical sets, props—begin) here that is simply awe-inspiring. At times, it's even dizzying as we try to reconcile that our preconceived notions of up and down have no real meaning in space.
The impetus for the plot is simple: The Russians have destroyed one of their old spy satellites, which causes a chain reaction of destruction of other orbital objects. The debris is sent hurtling through orbit faster than a bullet, and the mission is right in its path.
What follows is a breathless series of hindrances to Ryan and Kowalski's forward momentum to find a vessel that will return them to Earth (The camera, then, is basically echoing their need to keep moving). It's an exercise in Murphy's Law, with the screenplay by Cuarón and his son Jonás constantly finding new and logical impediments that take full advantage of the purity of Newton's physical laws that the setting provides.
These are thrilling and sometimes terrifying scenarios. They are only broken up by short scenes of respite (or, in one case, a startling realization in the midst of a hectic sequence) in which the character must contemplate the immediacy of their mortality (Bullock's performance, stripped down to the essential conflict within the character, is particularly effective in this regard).
Early in the film, Ryan is hurled off-structure, which leads to an extended shot that subtly rotates and moves closer to her face until we almost imperceptibly find ourselves in a subjective point of view as she spins further into the vacuum of space. The arrival at the International Space Station sends the astronauts bouncing off the structure like ragdolls, furiously grasping at something—anything—that could stop them from floating away from their only chance of survival. The return of the debris leads to the film's most spectacular setpiece, which combines an attempt to free an escape pod from a larger object as that vessel is torn to shreds.Gravity is a triumph of visual effects, but it's the way that Cuarón implements those tools that is exhilarating. For all of its technical prowess, this is a work of pure and unabashedly virtuoso filmmaking from a genuine master of the craft.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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