Sunday, November 3, 2013

Gravity Review: Lost in Beautiful, Terrifying Space

Rating: PG
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Release Date: October 4, 2013
Presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D

            That was my first reaction once the credits rolled to Gravity, the new film from Alfonso Cuaron, who previously gave us the 2006 dystopian sci-fi Children of Men and series favorite Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. With echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey in its frequent use of long takes surveying the wondrous sights of space, Gravity outdoes even his previous efforts with its transfixing visual splendor. I found myself with my jaw agape consistently throughout its 90-minute runtime, the first 17 minutes consisting of an unbelievable single continuous take, immediately pulling one into its story set just above our home planet.
            But don’t let a 2001 comparison fool you into thinking that Gravity is some “arty” meditative science fiction appealing mostly to film students.  At its core Gravity is an intense thriller set in the alluring yet deadly void of space.  On her first shuttle mission, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) assists veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski on a routine spacewalk. Interrupted by a surprise rain of debris from a destroyed Russian satellite, their shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalski as the only survivors, with no radio contact and no one to help them.
Unlike many other thrillers or action pictures where there is a variety of setpieces and locales spread across their running time, Gravity is essentially one massive, intricate, unrelenting feature-length setpiece. One would think that sounds limiting to the point where it risks wearing out its welcome. But every time you think this film may have blown its wad, or couldn’t possibly have any more tricks up its sleeve, it always finds a new way to keep you on edge. This is all further enhanced by arguably the best use of 3D in any film to date. Not for one second does the 3D effect not engross you into the action. The view of space constantly seems to reach out forever, like we’re floating in it ourselves. The rays of sunlight shine through the screen as Stone and Kowalski find a moment of solace after experiencing disaster. We see through the visor of Dr. Stone’s helmet as she spins around weightlessly in panicked terror. Teardrops float towards us in zero gravity as Stone breaks down at her most desperate. This is the kind of movie IMAX 3D was made for, and is not just recommended but flat-out necessary to experience in the format if you can.
"Beautiful, don't you think?"
           While George Clooney’s cool, at-ease persona is more than welcome in such a heart-pounding movie, it’s really Bullock’s story to anchor as she gives an achingly human performance as Dr. Stone, a rookie space explorer whose fight to survive allows her to find her will to truly live. Beginning the film depressed and making do with her work to avoid her past trauma, her harrowing journey under constant threat of being lost in the endless void forces her to face herself and let go of her pain if she wishes to truly escape it. This is easily the best performance of her career, and combined with Cuaron’s direction we truly feel as if we are journeying along with her, in her shoes, experiencing her every moment of terror, desperation, relief, frustration, pain, resolve, and wonder.  
            Gravity is a staggering, truly astonishing achievement in filmmaking, one which stands to likely be the best film of 2013, even with a staggering amount of competition for that title still on the horizon (12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Her, and The Wolf of Wall Street, to name a few). It is also a beacon to what big-budget Hollywood filmmaking is still capable of, something that we need all the more of these days.
Final Review Score: 10/10
+ Transporting, awe-inspiring visual storytelling
+ An intense, gripping, expertly paced thriller that keeps you glued to the screen
+ A career-best performance from Sandra Bullock
+ Quite possibly the best use of 3D to date