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Monday
Oct072013

Gravity (2013)

Spatial Elations

I understand your skepticism of James Cameron's calling Gravity "the best space film ever done". We should expect nothing less from the self-proclaimed King of the World, I suppose. But the first unintended consequence of one of sci-fi cinema's greatest creators throwing down such a hefty gauntlet is that everyone who hears the quote will immediately pull up a mental list of films to challenge his claim. Lucky for Cameron, he's very close to the mark: co-writer/director Alfonso Cuaron doesn't just deserve an Oscar for this masterpiece--the man needs a medal.

Because the film's story is so simple, it's far too easy to give away key details. So consider this paragraph to be your mega-spoiler warning. For the uninitiated, I ask that you please leave--but not before understanding how important it is that you see Gravity in 3D, and in IMAX, if at all possible. Cuaron, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, composer Steven Price, and the too-big-to-list army of special effects maestros working their digital voodoo on this thing have not only created a stunning art object whose impact will be utterly lost on the small screen; they've made going to the movies feel like a truly magical, communal experience again. If this isn't the best film of the year, it may be the most important.

Now, on with the show...

(Seriously, turn back now if you haven't seen the movie.)

Gravity opens with a team of scientists orbiting Earth and making repairs to the Hubble telescope. Wisecracking, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) zips around the supporting structure, exchanging quips and anecdotes with Mission Control (represented by an unseen Ed Harris) and trying to keep newbie scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) from panicking her way to a mistake. When word comes in that the Russians have blown up one of their own satellites with a rocket (turning the debris into a tidal wave of bullet-speed shrapnel headed their way), the crew scrambles to return to the space shuttle Explorer.

The warning comes too late, of course, and Hubble is destroyed--along with Explorer, the people on-board, and the third space-walking technician (Paul Sharma) who'd been doing a zero-G happy dance only moments before. Stone is caught on the telescope's arm, swinging endlessly without any force to slow her down. She disengages the belt tethering her to the structure, and spins into oblivion. Kowalski eventually helps her back to the accident site, where they determine that their best course of action is to use the little bit of fuel left in Kowalski's booster chair to limp to a neighboring space station. In addition to depleted oxygen, fuel, and damaged spacecraft, Cuaron (who co-wrote Gravity with his son, Jonas) piles on a fourth Doomsday Clock to his story: the shrapnel storm will circle back around every ninety minutes until it depletes, placing our heroes in an improbable, terrifying, real-life game of Frogger.

I was surprised at how quickly the film became a one-person show. Kowalski sacrifices himself to save both he and Stone when the two lose their precarious grip on the space station, floating away to certain death with only a minor tinge of regret in his still-running mouth. This tear-jerking bit of nobility would be climax candy in most other movies, but the Cuarons serve it up twenty minutes in--thus re-upping their story's "Where do we go now?" quotient. Stone, who'd only trained with NASA for six months prior to the mission, goes through one Job-like trial after another, as each glimmer of hope for a safe return is cruelly dashed by circumstance: her oxygen reserves deplete before making it to the space station; the space station's escape pods have been damaged--and the station itself is on fire; the instructions for the functioning pod is in Russian; and on and on and on.

Gravity is a movie about dread, and its relentless assault on hope. Though she's a female protagonist in a sci-fi picture, Stone is no Ellen Ripley. She never recovered from the freak death of her young daughter years before, and has built a life of conflict-free solitude as a defense. Her quest to fully disengage from people even led her to space, the ultimate atmosphere-free environment, where there's nothing to do but work and forget, work and forget, work and forget (getting stuck with the loudmouth Kowalski was likely the mission's first torturous experience).

The filmmakers boldly allow Stone to give in to the very real, very understandable urge to kill herself. Sitting in yet another busted escape pod (this one borrowed from a Chinese space station), she realizes her options have dried up. Out of fuel, low on air, and in the path of another debris storm, Stone shuts down her life support systems and drifts off to sleep. This happens late enough in the story that I believed those ballsy Cuarons had really decided to end their unconventional blockbuster on a mega-downer (remember, Alfonso also brought us the equally epic and disturbing Children of Men).

What comes next is an even more daring choice that, in less-capable hands, could have sunk the movie for me. In a multi-layered bit of surrealism, Kowalski returns, swinging open the pod door and climbing inside. At first, we're not sure if another rescue crew was really dumb enough to bust through the door without making sure Stone had her helmet on (she didnt'); she freezes in place, and holds for a time that transcends plausibility and enters the realm of theatricality. We realize that she's crossed over into either the afterlife or the dream world--which may be one and the same--with Kowalski acting as her Vodka-swigging tour guide/motivational coach.

While I appreciate this scene in hindsight, it underserves the movie by collecting its handful of flaws into one very noticeable place. To begin with, Kowalski is a charming character, but there's too much Clooney caricature in him. In selling us on his casual-guy-in-a-sea-of-wonders personality, the Cuarons dial his jokiness, cavalier attitude, and love of country music up just past the point of plausibility--and, worse yet, likability. Stone's dream also pushes Gravity, briefly, into the realm of art-house pretentiousness--a bad neighborhood we visit in an earlier scene, where she fell asleep in an airlock and curls up into a fetal position, a loose hose taking the form of an umbilical chord. I didn't appreciate any of this nonsense, because it makes the Cuarons' film seem at once dumber and smarter than it already is.

Despite these flaws, Gravity is a wonderfully told and superbly acted film. Bullock is completely vulnerable, and unglamorous here, and plays Stone as non-actorly as possible. Many will claim that Gravity's true star is the special effects, but as we learned with Avatar, pretty pictures alone will not keep a groundbreaking VFX movie from quickly turning to garbage.

Ah, yes, the special effects! A few minutes into Gravity, I had to do something I rail against on a daily basis: turn off my brain--at least the part of it that kept screaming, "NO, SERIOUSLY, HOW DID THEY DO THAT?!"

To enjoy the film, I simply had to accept that Cuaron actually shot the thing in outer space, and that it's history's first trillion-dollar movie. I kid, of course, but only a little. The reason you have to see Gravity in IMAX 3D is because Cuaron has delivered a wholly immersive, thrilling experience for smart people.* At ninety minutes, it's a lean, nerve-wracking thriller that pushes the very shiny objects to the background, and spends its jaw-drop bullets on rich characterization. By marrying strong performances with a solid screenplay in a universe that we can all but touch, Cuaron places us on that telescope arm; in that burning space station; and in the dried-up, foreign escape capsule, gasping for breath.

It's been a great year for space-exploration--just not in real life. A few months ago, Europa Report presaged Gravity, but in a found-footage form and on an indie scale. There's something very refreshing about turning space into a metaphor for the dark places man is at once eager to explore and reluctant to unleash. Who needs transforming robots, genocidal super-men, and preening, re-imagined dictators from beyond the stars, when the scariest challenges we might possibly face are swimming around in our own heads?

Late in the film, Stone monologues about the oddity of knowing that she's going to die today, as opposed to holding that truth at bay as an abstract concept. Both Gravity and Europa Report are about pushing beyond the boundaries of the known and testing our own ability to grapple with ideas and forces greater than the safe, denial-friendly worlds in which we've cocooned ourselves.

That someone took a big-budget risk on a deep-thinking director who hadn't made a movie in seven years--and the fact that audiences have overwhelmingly embraced the Cuarons' vision--gives me hope that this re-igniting of genuine movie magic is but the first step into a brighter, better universe.

*When I say "smart people", I don't mean the ultra-nerdy physics freaks who are going to pick apart everything from velocity calculations to wardrobe to the opening title font. It's possible that just one of the catastrophes presented here would have killed everyone in an instant. As movie lovers, we have to let that go and enjoy the drama, which is honest to the situation, even if the situation may not be entirely plausible.

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