Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gravity


Grade: 85/A-

There’s a joke among certain critics on Twitter that Gravity is essentially Movie: The Ride. It’s at least partially true, but that’s not exactly a knock against it. The new film by Alfonso Cuarón (his first since 2006’s Children of Men) works first as a pure sensory experience, one that takes the viewer through the white-knuckle survival story of two astronauts. What makes Gravity more than just an excellent thrill-ride is Cuaron’s deeply-felt humanity: the sense that human life is valuable rather than expendable.

Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a bio-medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission. A Russian missile strike on an old satellite crashes into a ship, it kills every team member other than Stone and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut on his final mission. As Stone and Kowalski lose contact with Mission Control, the two are forced to use their wits to survive.

The relative simplicity of Gravity’s survival story makes it a perfect vehicle for Cuarón’s penchant for baroque camera movements. The film opens with a bravura 17-minute shot that’s extraordinary both for its sense of zero-gravity movement (which practically makes the viewer another participant in the action) and for its exact compositions. It’s another example of why cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki knows how to move a camera better than almost anyone else in the business.

It’s also some of the most astonishing action directing in years. The sense of spatial dynamics in Gravity is extraordinary, not to mention essential. With even the most ostentatious movements, there’s a need to show exactly what we’re seeing at the exact moment we see it. The film roots our experience in the characters’ objectives, in the specific cause-and-effect of every detail. That emphasis is important, considering the film’s central thread: the value of life.

Cuarón’s script (co-written by his son Jonas) isn’t the most elegant piece of work. Its introduction of Stone’s backstory is clumsy and contrived. It’s not unbelievable that Stone would reveal her past trauma at a moment where she’s in grave danger, but it does feel too much like the cogs of the screenplay grinding to get her into the place she needs to be for the climax. The film also takes a major misstep with a late-period scene that serves mostly to explicate the film’s theme. But these flaws are minor in the face of the film’s ultimately moving look at a character’s rebirth and appreciation.

Bullock carries most of the movie on her shoulders (Clooney is charming as ever in a mostly functional supporting role), giving what’s likely the best, most vulnerable and focused performance of her career. As Stone, she’s a character whose need to survive goes from basic human instinct to more soulful places. Cuarón frames Bullock in birth imagery that might seem heavy-handed if it weren’t so lyrical. A mid-film shot of Bullock re-entering a spacecraft, stripping off her spacesuit and down to her underwear (in a shot that consciously evokes Sigourney Weaver in Alien) then shows her in a fetal position, a cord framed near her as if it were an umbilical cord.

It’s a moment of tranquility amidst a space traveler’s worst nightmare, and it’s those moments that give the film its meaning and power. A later scene with Stone at her lowest ebb, slowly and quietly coming to terms with the likelihood of her death only furthers the film’s sense that life is a gift. Gravity ultimately works not because it’s a brilliantly executed survival story, but because it’s a film in which human survival, this human’s survival, matters.

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