Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity: When Devastating Beauty Meets Devastating Consequences

"Space scares me to death." That's what all of my friends said when facing the task of watching Alfonso Cuarón's follow-up to Children of Men, Gravity, with me. After-the-fact, I must say that I, too, am scared to death of space.

Gravity is one the best movies I've seen as of late, and possibly better than anything I saw last year, though it is difficult to compare this to Beasts of the Southern Wild. It's on par with Zero Dark Thirty, though the ways by which they create their thriller atmosphere differ greatly, and it's most certainly a better movie than last year's Best Picture winner, Argo.

The film is about Dr. Ryan Stone, a doctor from Illinois and NASA specialist for whom this is her first ever space mission, and astronaut Matt Kowalski, a seasoned veteran for whom this is his final mission. They are one day from completing they're mission when word of a chain reaction of satellite collisions caused by a botched Russian anti-satellite test are heading for the space shuttle. They are struck and are fighting for their lives. Their race to get back to earth is the entire film's premise.

The film's 90 minutes are some of the most breathtaking I've encountered, and that's not just because Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is Oscar-worthy. The immense stress put upon the viewer by Alfonso Cuarón, an almost certain nominee for Best Director, and with great reason, is almost debilitating, and that says even more about this film. Only about 30-45 minutes of the film's runtime, I'd say, are true "thriller moments," with big, dramatic, thrilling music (an Oscar-worthy score by Steven Price, might I add) and all that goes along with them. Yet from the moment they are struck by the initial wave of debris, the viewers are fending for their lives just as much as Ryan, the real protagonist of the film, and Matt, who disappears midway through (I will not divulge the reason though it is none too difficult to guess).

As I've already said, the film is aided immensely by it's terrific direction and stunning cinematography, but that's not all it needed. If the visual effects team does not win the Oscar, it will be a travesty greater than the current government shutdown. Sandra Bullock also deserves a huge amount of credit. Early on, I had no idea how the character of Ryan would change and grow during the film. I figured it would be just another standard thriller character, which requires a better-than-average actor (I don't think Bullock is) to make it good. It wasn't, and Bullock's performance is vastly better than I ever could have expected, and vastly better than her Oscar-winning turn in The Blind Side. Her best scenes are, contrary to what some of my friends thought, her monologues in the later portions of the film. My favorite scene is when she's talking to the Chinese man back on earth on the satellite radio. She runs the gamut of emotions and is utterly heartbreaking. From her woofing like a dog to her falling apart at her separation from life itself, I almost teared up watching it. I would be completely okay with her getting her second Oscar nomination, though it is somewhat unlikely as the Oscars rarely recognize thriller performances.

All of this ogling and praising aside, the film is far from perfect. It's 3D, while the best I've seen (which isn't saying anything since I've refused to watch one until this point), is underutilized. The debris scenes could have been much more 3D-centric. Also, 3D's inability to focus on one thing without completely making everything else blurry is annoying, though not really a critique of the film, so much. George Clooney's performance, while perfectly fine and not falling into his unfortunate trend of being completely uninterested, is simply fine at best, and I cannot help but think about how much more the original choice, Robert Downey, Jr., would have brought to the rather simple role. Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón's script is also somewhat weak, though this only applies to the beginning of the film. The exchanges between Ryan, Matt, and Mission Control (a cameo voice role by Ed Harris essentially revisiting his Apollo 13 role), are weak at best. The lines are wooden and, worse than clichéd, seem as though the Cuarón brothers sat down as said, "Let's write some meaningless smalltalk for the beginning of the film. Not being an astronaut, I'm unsure as to whether these sorts of exchanges actually occur, but it was painful nonetheless.

Overall, though, this is an absolutely tremendous film. It is stunning, mostly wonderfully acted, and magnificently directed. It is a technological marvel of modern filmmaking, an uncommonly complex and human thriller, and a film that should challenge 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture, though whether it will is another story entirely.

I'm going to start a new method of rating:


  1. I have yet to see a great film this year. I hope, when I see this film, that will change.

  2. I hope so too. I know you'll disagree with me about Clooney. I thought he was just fine, and you'll probably think he was completely uninterested, but to each his own. I failed to mention in the review that some of Bullock's monologue's were pretty predictable as written. She really surprised me, though.