Review: Gravity

GRAVITY

Ever since the Lumiere brothers premiered “The Train Arrives at the Station” in 1895, filmmakers of all kinds have aspired to achieve the same level of immediacy and awe that made audiences bolt out of their seats and run from the theatre well over a century ago. Of course, watching that film today requires some perspective to imagine what all of the fuss was over, but nevertheless, it was likely the first time in film history that the edges of the frame seemingly dissolved and the audience’s experience was directly intertwined with the image flickering on the screen. Cinema has made quantum leaps in its capabilities since then, and it has now arrived at Gravity, a film years in the making by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. Not only is Gravity a culmination of everything that Cuaron has been perfecting as an auteur, but it also daringly eschews the very rules that have kept cinema grounded for the past century. The phrase “tour de force” can feel a little overplayed these days, but in the case of Gravity, it feels like an understatement.

Gravity is an intimate epic, which may sound oxymoronic, but that classification is completely justified, with scenes of solemn privacy set against the broadest canvas possible: space. The fabric of our solar system, galaxy and universe has been the subject of depiction for millennia, and by this point we may be confident enough to declare we’ve seen it all, but from its opening shot, Gravity promises that we’ve experienced nothing. The script, written by both Cuaron and his son Jonas, tells a deceptively simple narrative. The film begins with a routine spacewalk on the NASA vessel Explorer undergoing a new installation on the Hubble Space Telescope. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first mission, and naturally cautious and reserved in her work. Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), on the other hand, is an old pro on the verge of breaking the space walk record, and his lighthearted demeanor is a complete opposite from Stone’s. Everything is going relatively smoothly, but when Houston on the ground reports of the destruction of a Russian satellite hurtling debris directly in the trajectory of Explorer and its crew, a race for survival begins. What transpires over the remaining runtime utterly defies verbal description.

Despite its extraordinary location, Gravity is something of a minimalist film in that its cast is primarily comprised of two characters, and its heart is very much carried by the actors. As Ryan Stone, Bullock devotes the performance of her career, not only insanely athletic in her acrobatics, but also devastating in layering her character. As Stone’s backstory is gradually revealed, Bullock provides a full portrait of her humanity. The same can be said for Clooney’s Kowalski, whose buoyancy not only relieves the film from its otherwise relentless tension, but whose personality is instrumental in affecting Stone. Clooney easily slips into the role, balancing gentle wisecracks with moments of startling resonance. A surprising element to Gravity is how much dialogue in contains, some of which may sound arbitrary or excessive, but it has a purpose. Since Stone and Kowalski are in such an isolated situation, they may not feel like talking, but communication is vital, be it to themselves or to each other. The stark reality is that it is the only way they can stay sane.

A major reason for the absolute success of Gravity as a piece of cinema is how it challenges the way we perceive the medium. Cuaron has been pushing the boundaries as much as any major filmmaker, but here he transcends them. This begins with his longtime collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and what they achieve here is nothing less than groundbreaking. One of Cuaron’s chief characteristics as a director has been his focus on long takes within single shots as a way of marrying subject with environment. Nowhere is this more true than in outer space, and in Gravity both Cuaron and Lubezki take their aesthetic further than ever. With an aid of both real cameras, pre-visualization, and staggeringly photo-real CGI, the flawless, hypnotic camera movements are paced with such finesse that an out of body experience is fully realized. The lack of gravity becomes such a player in the achievement in the film, and so Lubezki is absolutely liberated in his movement, conceiving of sequences that have never before been attempted. Cuaron is such a master in incorporating every necessary detail in his mis-en-scene, be it a sliver of the sun peaking over the Earth, or a frighteningly tight close-up inside the helmet of Stone, and yet his long takes never feel self indulgent, effortlessly blending into the fabric of space.

Of course there are several other key components that contribute immensely to the experience that Gravity imparts. Despite the fact that the film is so dependent on its visual construction, the film is fascinating editorially as well, not simply for the multiple shots had to be stitched together to achieve some the long takes, but with the actual edits as well. In space, there is no up or down, left or right, and so the editing, while minimal, nevertheless also freely breaks the traditional rules of cinema in order to tell the story. Additionally, the absence of sound is critical to the realism of space, and thus the sound design capitalizes on this immensely. From Stone’s panicked breathing as she tumbles into the abyss, to the lack of sound as Explorer is torn apart by debris, the sound design only adds to the alternating terror and majesty of being hundreds of miles above Earth’s surface. The other profound aural element is Steven Price’s haunting score, both ethereal in its presentation, especially for its lack of percussion, and heart in the throat emotional as the film hurtles towards its heart pounding climax.

Gravity, at its very essence, is a story about the fight for survival. As Stone comes closer to arriving face to face with her own mortality, we as an audience are also faced with the ramifications of the finality of our own existence. Cuaron’s film is close as a whisper every time we read into Bullock’s astounding face, but as she looks out on that extraordinary planet before her, we look squarely upon ourselves. Before revealing its opening shot, the film provides statistics about space, then concludes, “Life in space is impossible.” Indeed, Gravity proves this with pure shock and terror, but with each passing frame as we drift above our home, it also verifies what a miracle life is.

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~ by romancinema on October 4, 2013.

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