Saturday, October 12, 2013
This review contains mild spoilers. Read at your own risk.
The first few minutes of Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity could be an advertisement for how much fun it is to be an astronaut. With Earth in the background, a NASA veteran named Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) putters around while extolling the performance of his jet pack while first-timer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) works to install a new guidance system on the Hubbell Telescope. Kowalski is exactly what one would expect George Clooney to be like if he was an astronaut, full of jokes and banter with Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris) while the nervous Stone is focused on her work. During these initial scenes it isn't hard to notice how beautiful space is. The sumptuous visual effects and Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography combine to create something new, a skyscape that's gorgeous but also textured. The American shuttle and the other spacecraft encountered in the film feel fragile and all too real; there's nothing "science fiction" about Gravity. Cuaron, whose last film was the too long ago Children of Men, is testing his limits here and the for a while the results are exhilarating since his vision of Earth orbit is both wonderfully cinematic and a place where someone could die. Gravity was made to be seen with the benefit of the new, immersive 3D technology. Yes, water and pens and other objects float toward the audience but the intent isn't to make you jump back from the screen. It's to invite you inside of the place we all share.
Things go badly wrong when a debris field (caused by the destruction of a Russian satellite) destroys the shuttle and leaves Stone and Kowalski stranded. (The other American astronauts are only voices.) It is at this point that the true purpose of Gravity begins to reveal itself and that the visual magic begins to wear off a little. Cuaron wants to remind us to embrace life no matter how bad things get, because it's a beautiful planet and the other options are few. Since the astronauts don't have much else to do in space their back story is dropped directly onto our heads. It's Kowalski's last mission and Stone lost a young daughter in an accident (Kowalski asks Stone questions like they've just met in the air lock.), so if you're going into the movie cold the question of which character needs a wake-up call is answered even before things get dicey. Gravity is Sandra Bullock's show and her performance is so full of grit and pain that I wish there was a more fully fleshed-out movie around it. It is to Bullock's credit that she transcends the somewhat schematic nature of Cuaron's vision, for her character is nothing less than a floating symbol of human resilience. The bravura action sequences, including an attempt to travel between spacecraft with the aid of a fire extinguisher, are superbly done and worth dealing with the movie's other issues for but they also reduce a complicated woman to a set of base human needs. Cuaron (who wrote the script with his son Jonas) could maybe get by with playing the vastness of space off against the primal instinct to survive, but he also has to give the movie an ending. Gravity is finally a strange hybrid of a movie about both inner strength and jet packs, and in space inner strength will only get you so far.