Tuesday, October 8, 2013

GRAVITY - Falling in Love with Cinema

This is going to be one of those times that I feel utterly unequal to task of intelligently articulating just how good a movie is, and why it deserves both the near-unanimous critical reception it's recieved AND as much attention from a wide audience as it can possibly get.

But what the hell, I'll give it a shot.

Because to be brief, the movie's REALLY F***ING GREAT.

Of course, being brief has never been my long suit.

GRAVITY is the newest film by genre-hopping auteur Alfonso Cuaron, who - if is name isn't immediately familiar - has been building a reputation for himself with films like the sci-fi parable CHILDREN OF MEN as well as one of the best of the HARRY POTTER movies. He's shown a particular talent both for crowd-pleasing entertainment and lovingly-crafted "cinema as art," and GRAVITY is a genius marriage of both sides of the director.

The film rests on the simple premise of a spacewalk gone wrong, as a shuttle team in Earth's orbit fall prey to a catastrophic satellite explosion and two survivors - a cool-under-pressure veteran on his last mission and an out-of-her element rookie with emotional baggage - must make their way to safety before the deadly debris catches up with their orbital position again.

That's it. There's no wider picture the film gives of what's happening on the ground, no broader complications beyond a series of "Murphy's Law" survival story obstacles, and no real mid-film reversals or sub-plots. GRAVITY is a lean, tightly-focused, and beautifully-paced thrill-ride. And I don't use that particular description as the reductive epithet or sparse compliment that is so often bandied about for brain-dead summer blockbusters. Because while GRAVITY doesn't juggle legions of characters or complex plotting, it certainly doesn't speak down to it's audience, and - more importantly - it stands as a fantastic example of the "simple in concept, but intelligent in execution" model that Hollywood could stand to embrace a little (rather than the opposite, which it currently seems obsessed with). And is relentlessly and powerfully thrilling as a result.

Part of the brilliance in the execution lies in how the movie handles Sandra Bullock's character, Ryan Stone. The movie begins by thrusting the audience into her situation, and as Clooney's smoothly competent Matt Kowalski helps her get her bearings, so too is the viewer given just enough information to feel on an even footing with Stone's perilous situation and mental state to really invest in her, before being tossed with her out into the black. As a well-rounded female character, Stone emerges as one of the true greats in the mold of protagonists like Ellen Ripley, not because she's "a woman who kicks ass," but because she's a sympathetic, vulnerable human being prone to heartache and despair, but when tested by the most harrowing of circumstances shows magnificent strength.

And I can't believe I'm about to say this, but Sandra Bullock deserves an Oscar for playing this part.

Bullock has shown talents as a decent-enough leading lady with solid comedic timing but a frankly spotty record in the realm of straight-faced dramatic roles. But after watching her run the gauntlet in this movie, I couldn't be happier that she landed this role instead of other potentials like Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman. Bullock makes full use of the sparse-but-essential glimpses we get of Stone's history and plays the panic, terror, and struggle with natural passion and grace that does a beautiful job of selling her situation as immediate and convincing.

Of course, it helps that the film renders Bullocks surroundings (and indeed, even large portions of her SUIT) with some of the most convincing and awe-inspiring visuals since dinosaurs got cloned and Gollum got corrupted. GRAVITY spent nearly two years in post-production (filming finished in 2011), and the end result is a sumptuous visual experience in every way. Cuaron (who also co-wrote the film with his son, Jonas) has proven his chops with effects-heavy films, positively reveling in the opportunity to extend is signature long takes here with the assistance of cutting-edge CGI. The movie also features the most arresting use of 3D film-making since (if not including) AVATAR, and combined with Cuaron's long takes and occasional forays into first-person shots, which place the audience inside Stone's helmet as she spins, drifts, and fights her way through space, makes for a truly one-of-a-kind cinematic experience.

This is where GRAVITY's true genius lies. While a functional and emotional and economic narrative framework would be worth its weight in gold, it's the movie's use of film as a visual medium that pushes this into true masterpiece territory. Amid the jaw-dropping sequences of destruction and skin-of-the-teeth escapes there's several film's worth of lush imagery and gorgeous symbolism, including liberal rebirth representations, deliberate incorporation of all four elements, and a hell of a phoenix metaphor. What's more, the movie knows exactly how long to rest before catapulting the audience into the next life-or-death struggle. The way Cuaron fills the frame with both calm and calamity captures the wonder and terror of the final frontier with a dichotomy that few directors outside of Spielberg can aspire to.

This ever-changing atmosphere (if you'll pardon the pun) is accomplished with no small help from composer Steven Price, who served in the music department of undertakings like THE LORD OF THE RINGS films but here gets a chance to show his quality, and does so admirably. Most of GRAVITY's sound design is muffled to emulate the silence of vacuum (those noisy explosions in the trailers were added by the the marketing department), so an extra burden is placed on the score to ramp up the tension at key moments, as well as to bring home a triumphant cue. Having shown solid work on smaller genre fare like ATTACK THE BLOCK and THE WORLD'S END before, Price uses every opportunity to display his talents for a wider audience, and he's proven himself one to look out for. Or, to listen for. You get the point.

A great movie is always cause for celebration, but I take particular joy in seeing GRAVITY find such success. Having opened with a record-breaking weekend-haul, the #1 movie in the world is not only an original movie (rather than an adaptation, sequel, or remake), but is a character-driven auteur blockbuster featuring a female lead (over 40!) who deftly avoids nearly all demographic-pandering and focus-testing nonsense to boot. It's good to be reminded that sometimes there really is no better way for a film to win over an audience than excelling as a film in pretty much every way.

It's enough to make one fall in love with movies all over again.

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