Friday, April 08, 2016

Gravity (2013)

UK / USA, 91 minutes
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Writers: Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron, George Clooney
Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Music: Steven Price
Editors: Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

I see that my single favorite shot of 2013, which sent me back to see Gravity one more time while it was still in the theaters (and in 3D both times), is a well-known quantity at this point. At least, it serves as the climactic point of the looping scenelet on the DVD main menu. I'm talking, of course, about the final seconds of the 17-minute take that opens the picture, when astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) goes hurtling untethered into black space. It's when you realize that the carefully managed long take, with its slippery revolving camera, has totally communicated how vast, deep, cold, and alien it is in outer space.

I'm glad I indulged that second trip, because I must say Gravity loses a lot of mojo in the living room. It's faithful to the basic disaster movie template and with a great big tremendous finish. But it's just a little more puny like. In this movie, the two principals, Stone and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), have urgent things to do and critical places to go. A cascading disaster has killed the three others on their space mission, damaged their vessel, and cut off all communication with Earth. They continually encounter obstacles and then overcome them—it's a little bit like The Martian that way. Gravity benefits from its brevity, at just over an hour and a half, because its structure is so thuddingly repetitive. It doesn't mean you won't get caught up in it, but 90 minutes is probably about the right limit. What it lacks in originality that way, however, it makes up for with its fresh approach to outer space.

That might seem a little strange to say, especially when you note that most of the essentials were covered in 2001: A Space Odyssey, plus useful (and copious) updates since then courtesy NASA, Star Wars, etc. Everything in this movie, and so many other science fiction films since 1968, starts from that first photograph of Earth taken from space. The one thing that Gravity does better than any other such film I've seen is to keep finding ways to remind us that, in space, there is no such thing as up and down. It's a simple enough point, but continually mind-bending. They should have called it Zero Gravity, because that's the effluvium in which it swims.

A lot of this is the special effects (which again go back to 2001), but a lot more of it is conceptual, treating the camera self-consciously and explicitly as if it truly existed in zero gravity. Just as Kowalski does with the thrusters in the space-walk throne he holds court from, and later as Stone will, improvising with a fire extinguisher as thruster to make it across a patch of space from one vessel to another, the camera is prone to glide wildly anywhere that gentle forces incline it, spinning, revolving, panning in and all around. The geometry is almost unfathomable, directed by natural forces at play. It's fluid, beautiful, and perfectly elegant, capturing a sense of pure frictionless motion.

Obviously Gravity is some version of paycheck movie for all involved, and it was successful too, winning Best Picture and a handful of other Oscars. It seems like the biggest stretch to me for director and cowriter Alfonso Cuaron, who I knew chiefly for Y Tu Mama Tambien, which is a very different movie in many ways. Gravity did not come out of nowhere for Cuaron. You can see him working his way toward this or something like it, especially in his 2004 Harry Potter movie (Prisoner of Azkaban, which I haven't seen) and then in 2006 with Children of Men.

But I'm not sure they're so different after all when I consider the dramatic dynamics. In Y Tu Mama Tambien, a Spanish language movie set in Mexico, the characters may or may not be frivolous, but they are facing the eternal. Same here, except it's American astronauts in space. The arc is as simple as it can be, literally a physical arc: from orbital space to Earth. Get there. That is complicated with a plausible enough disaster, which then works as a crafty recurring element, occasioning along the way perhaps the whole picture's single best line: "I hate space" (second-best line: "What now?"). The characters, especially Stone, are given profound backstories, or we learn profound fragments. We learn, for example, that Stone lost a 4-year-old daughter in a freak accident, and that she is named "Ryan" because her father wanted a boy. Broad strokes, liberal portions of hokum embedded just in those two points, but they also work naturally to bring conviction to the motivation. At key moments, we are utterly committed to her.

But hokum is hokum and it must be said Gravity has a fair share. I'm with Stone and the story all the way, but at certain points, usually involving heaven, prayer, the children, and such, I get a little embarrassed for it. I'm not exactly saying it doesn't work, and I wouldn't attempt to draw the line—my hokum might be your profound fragment, and vice versa I'm sure. The story carries effectively enough on a little screen, but it's not the story that sold me on Gravity. The money shot, so to speak, is way too small in the living room (even with binoculars). This needs to be seen big as possible—in 3D too, if you can. I wouldn't call that ultimately a fatal flaw. But it's certainly a problem at this point.

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