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GRAVITY (2013) review

October 4, 2013

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written by: Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón

produced by: Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman

directed by: Alfonso Cuarón

rating: PG-13 (for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language)

runtime: 90 min.

U.S. release date: October 4, 2013

 

The anticipation leading up to “Gravity”, the first movie from “Children of Men” director Alfonso Cuarón, has been building momentum over the last seven years. Any new movie from the talented Mexican director would understandably warrant such fervor, but when it was announced years ago that it would be an outer space thriller, it immediately went to the top of my own must-see list. My expectations of a filmmaker such as Cuarón creating an artful and mesmerizing science fiction entry were met and surpassed. Having seen it twice now, in highly-recommended 3D and in IMAX, I can attest that “Gravity” deserves all the adjective-filled accolades it’s received since premiering over a month ago at the Venice International Film Festival.

“Gravity” opens with a breathtaking expansive shot of Earth, slowly turning as it sparkles in the sunlight. It’s a predominately silent opening that elicits feelings of fear and awe, as the realization of scale kicks in, which brings doubt to the saying “it’s a small world”. From this view, it’s not small at all. We are.

So is the moving spec that we begin to see. The human sounds of radio communication faintly increase, it becomes clear that spec is a space shuttle. Those voices belong to the three astronauts working on the vessel’s exterior. Cuarón’s cameras close in, smoothly swirling around the shuttle Explorer, circling medical engineer, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), as she diligently makes repairs to the Hubble telescope while managing zero-gravity movement in space for the first time. Her sharpened focus serves as a coping mechanism to the six months of training that was to prepare her for her first outing in space.

Confident veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is the old dog accompanying the rattled freshman. On the flip side, this is his very last mission and he can be seen effortlessly zipping around Stone and their colleague, Shariff (Paul Sharma), in his jet pack, playing Hank Williams Jr. and recounting recycled tales from his storied career, while trying to break the record for the longest spacewalk.

 

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Suddenly, Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris, as if returning to his “Apollo 13” role) interrupts their tasks to urgently order them to abort. Debris from a destroyed Russian satellite is heading their way and they are directed to get inside the shuttle and hope for the best. But the metal shower comes quicker than expected and Stone and Kowalski find themselves tossed about and separated as the Explorer is shredded, with a panicked Stone floating out into deep space. She is eventually found by Kowalski, who tethers her to him as they attempt to float their way to a Russian space station. He tries to take the edge off by keeping up the chatter as Stone remains frazzled by her depleting oxygen. Without a spacecraft and cut off from Houston, the pair face a seemingly impossible goal of survival that becomes increasingly harrowing and exhausting with each obstacle they encounter.

Not since “The Impossible” (my number one film from last year) has a film been this immersive, causing a visceral reaction from the audience while providing astonishing visuals. Working with visual effects specialist Tim Webber and re-teaming with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Children of Men”), Cuarón has created a dazzling experience with nail-biting tension and powerful spectacle. The director smartly relies on silence as well as the sound of astronauts talking, breathing and hyperventilating, to pull viewers in, while pulses of electro buzz from composer Steven Price ebbs and flows throughout the 90-minute feature.

Cuarón, who co-wrote the screenplay with his son Jonás, takes an economic approach to storytelling here as he understandably relies heavily on impressive visuals and simply amazing technological filmmaking. After the amazing 20-minute long-take introduction, our acquaintance with the characters grows through a state of constant movement and peril, with seldom background details revealed. What info is provided gives added emotional heft to Stone’s ordeal as she can’t help but reflect on a recent tragedy to deal with her current one. While their screenplay never delves too deep into characterization (the crisis-propelling plot simply doesn’t allow for it), it does satisfyingly touch on symbolism and themes such as: grief, sacrifice, perseverance and rebirth.

Watching Bullock and Clooney in “Gravity”, it’s easy to be reminded why these actors are movie stars. We’re used to them relying on their strengths (Bullock’s humor and comic timing and Clooney’s cocksure charisma) but there’s no doubt the two Oscar winners are great at what they do. That being said, audiences will see a side to Bullock that they may not have seen in a while. It’s that dramatic side that I’m drawn to moreso than any of her comedic turns. I’m glad she beat out seemingly dozens of other actresses for the role.

 

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Clooney, in a part that was originally given to Robert Downey Jr., definitely adds a needed charming levity and a reassuring experienced gravely baritone, both attributes the actor is known for. But it’s Ryan Stone who we spend the most time with and Bullock, who will deservedly get another Oscar nomination, turns in a career performance. What she has to go through, physically and emotionally is impressive and undeniably fatiguing.

Beyond the several panicked “No no no no no no!!” lines we get from the actress, Bullock also conveys a palpable (and natural) emotional distance that her character must overcome in order to make her way back to Earth. Catharsis by way of ironic metaphor. Through frustration and irritation, through much clinging and pulling, we see something rare on-screen: a fortysomething female protagonist forced to dig deep and push herself – physically, mentally and emotionally – to live.

“Gravity” is indeed a gorgeous film and a groundbreaking visual achievement, but what resonates most is the emotional ride. I was as jolted and unnerved as I was awestruck. In essence, I was all over the   place and can still say that after two viewings. Here is a film that provides us with the closest to a space simulation that we’re ever likely to get. It’s most certainly a film that demands to be seen in 3D and on the biggest screen possible.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2013 10:39 am

    Awesome review, I am super excited to see this film.

  2. October 6, 2013 10:29 pm

    Definitely on the must see list. Impressive review writing skills Can’t wait to see if your critique lines up with mine. I need someone to tell me which movies to see that I can trust.

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