Friday, October 25, 2013
Gravity Movie Review
Gravity is a beautiful and poetic movie. It is a technical marvel and one of the tensest 90 minutes of movie viewing I can recall. And it is about one of the little talked about, but ever present, dangers of space travel and orbiting earth.
There are so many satellites floating around up there and every now and then something comes apart, leaving space junk out there. This space junk sometimes travels at mind-boggling speeds. If it comes into contact with a shuttle or another satellite or an astronaut on a spacewalk, it could have devastating consequences. The particular event in Gravity, directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón, along with his son Jonás, is the destruction by missile of a Russian satellite. All those little pieces of debris are orbiting at a speed of 20,000 kilometers per hour. They rip through the space shuttle where mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are completing work on the Hubble. The two are left stranded in space, their only remaining hope being the escape pods on the International Space Station. And at the speed the debris is traveling, they have about 90 minutes before they’re in for another shit storm.
Space hasn’t been filmed like this since Kubrick mesmerized audiences with 2001: A Space Odyssey. The visuals are breathtaking, complex in their ingenuity, and, according to guys who have actually been up there, uncannily accurate. Cinematographer and longtime Cuarón collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki gets the lighting on these characters so right. In space there is no atmosphere to diffuse sunlight. It is direct and intense. Where it shines, it’s bright and where it doesn’t is darkness. Everything about the feeling of a zero gravity environment in this movie seems to put you right there alongside. The camera moves freely as the astronauts do.
And the sound design – wow! Movies that come out of Hollywood – all of them – come with incredible sound mixing and overall sound design, but this is something else entirely. In space, as an opening title tells us, there is no atmosphere to carry sound (an ominous variation on the tagline for Alien). Therefore all the explosions that we hear in other films taking place in space are just for effect. Cuarón set out to make a realistic and experiential space film. So the only sounds we hear apart from the dialogue communicated over radio signal and the eclectic and ominous score crafted from low rumbling effects and instrumentation are the ‘sounds’ of the instruments being used, which is presented more as a vibration effect as if the characters are experiencing the sensation and accompanying low-frequency sounds generated by their own bodies. Everything else is silence. And it’s deeply effective.
I did see the movie in 3D. I generally limit myself to about one or two 3D films a year just to see how the technology is improving and being implemented differently by other directors. My general feeling about 3D is that it’s an unnecessary appendage on a film. It looked great for the Pandora world scenes in Avatar, which were essentially animated sequences. Scorsese put it to fairly good use in Hugo, but I found it pointless in Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. In Gravity I truly failed to see how it added anything to the story or the spectrum of visual wonders. I never once felt so awed by or immersed in the 3D experience. And I believe that the way some critics have thrown praise at 3D when utilized by so-called “auteurs” and derision when it’s used for, say, Clash of the Titans is a little bit of the emperor’s new clothes. Now, I’ve never seen a truly bad use of 3D because I avoid those movies in general and even if I do see them I don’t want to pay the surcharge for the extra effect. So maybe something happens when you’re so accustomed to seeing it shoddily used that when a truly gifted filmmaker takes time and care to do it right, it comes across as truly impressive. Not for me. Because I can count on my fingers the number of 3D films I’ve seen, I continue to regret the decision to pay extra every time.
Though Gravity may be a true technical wonder to behold, there’s something lacking in the story and characterization to draw the audience in. The lazy writing provides Stone and Kowalski with one Big Character Trait each that entirely defines their words and actions. In Stone’s case it’s the past loss of a child. This to me is just a shorthand way of indicating that the character is going to go through a Major Change. And to be sure, this film is all about rebirth and starting anew, from the fetal position Stone folds herself into when she enters the International Space Station to her (MAJOR SPOILERS) emergence on earth into a water environment followed by crawling onto dry land, learning to walk, and heading into a green wilderness paradise like the creatures that preceded her in evolutionary history by several million years.
The grand look of the film can’t compensate for the lack of emotional depth in the story. I can’t deny the fact that I didn’t once feel anything for Dr. Stone. I’m not sure if this was more to do with the paltry fleshing out of her character or my distaste for Bullock’s wooden acting and line delivery. I found it nearly impossible to muster the will to care whether she lived or died. In fact, I was sort of hoping she wouldn’t make it back to earth and that the whole thing would become a meditation on self-reflection in the final hours and minutes before your inevitable death. Alas, the Cuaróns had something else in mind. It’s no less noble, but I found it unconvincing.