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'Gravity': A visual experience light years ahead of the rest

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Gravity

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I saw Gravity at two consecutive screenings. I saw it, immediately left, bought a ticket for the soonest available screening to follow, and saw it again. This is not because Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s space adventure is difficult to wrap your mind around. It’s not 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris, it’s a surprisingly straight-forward and simple plot, the type of conventional parable we often get in these survival genre films. It’s because the film immerses you in the deep terror of space, and it’s so gorgeously rendered that it succeeds in that old movie cliche of “transporting you to another world”– here, that world is thousands of miles above our own. It’s also the type of movie filled with ingenuity and visuals that seem impossible to achieve; the first thirty minutes of Gravity are two long takes, both all-timers. Cuaron’s affinity for the long take, seen in his other films, suits him perfectly to shoot in space, where the camera spins, tumbles, and weaves about, giving us a smooth blend of disorientation and carefully established geography. As you watch an astronaut free floating through space while the sun peeks out from behind the planet, you gasp at the combination of fear and wonder that space inspires. That’s what makes Gravity such an indelible experience; it deserves to be seen in 3D on the biggest screen at your disposal, or you’re missing out.

We begin with a title card, telling us that space has unthinkable temperature changes, no oxygen, and no pressure. The last words read, simply, “Life in space is impossible.” We’re suddenly above the Earth, in shocking silence. In the distance, we hear from the back right corner of the theater the faintest radio signal. It grows louder, and we see the Explorer, rotating the Earth. Ryan (Sandra Bullock) does some repair work outside the ship: she complain about her stomach and is clearly not at ease in space. Matt (George Clooney), on the other hand, is freely spinning about the spacecraft in a jet pack, attempting to go for the all-time space walk record, all the while telling irreverent stories and cracking wise. As one would expect from the trailers (which I avoided like the plague), something goes terribly wrong, leaving Ryan isolated, floating in space, unable to stop spinning, and running low on oxygen. Everything that happens from there I refuse to reveal, but I will reveal this: everything that I mentioned above takes place in the dazzling 17-minute long take opening.

After my first watch, I must admit to some hesitations regarding the film’s progression from that point. The opening title card, combined with much of the opening scene, is so silent that I expected silence to play a large role. However, though many of the film’s best sequences contain jarring moments of silence, much of the film is accompanied by Steven Price’s operatic and bombastic score. It soars when appropriate, building tension through the usual rumbles and strings– there was just such a ripe opportunity for a movie to build its tension with unconventional silence that I resented the score initially. It’s a strong, high-quality score… but I’d pay double to see a cut with no score at all. Furthermore, the opening seems to suggest the movie will go to dark, perhaps philosophical places, bringing to mind some of cinema history’s more thoughtful and strange space adventures. However, it becomes after its opening a rather simple parable: Ryan reveals that she lost a child, and she hasn’t recovered, but this journey teaches her to find the strength to live again. This makes the film’s poster tagline, “Don’t Let Go,” misleading, and it finds the film’s script dipping heavily into the cliche and the cornball– a prettier version of a familiar story.

However, despite initially being underwhelmed by said simplicity, the second watch revealed its efficiency, primarily thanks to the bravura performance by Bullock. It’s easy to overlook how good her performance is when much of her dialogue consists of heavy breathing and panicked utterances (“don’t let go!” “help!” “can anyone hear me?” etc.). However, her expressive eyes and vulnerability that have made her such an asset in the comedy genre carry her in Gravity. At one moment early on, she’s spinning away into space and stops breathing for a few seconds… then suddenly gasps back to life. Watch her eyes. It’s hard to underplay the most terrifying situation imaginable while remaining convincing, but she handles it. It’s also intensely physical work, as her body does much of the acting for her– not just in the outer space scenes (where undoubtedly it’s the performance of her and several stuntpeople), but also when she removes her suit. In one sequence, she’s inside a space station in the air lock: she strips off her suit and curls up into a fetal position, delicately and vulnerably floating in the absence of gravity. It’s one of the most unforgettable scenes of the year.

Obviously the real star is Cuaron and his team of visual geniuses, as sequence after sequence boggles the mind. Anyone who’s seen Children of Men knows his affinity for visual symbolism, and certainly rebirth is peppered throughout the images here, such as in the aforementioned fetal scene and in the final long take, which I dare not spoil. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is a stone-cold lock for the best of the year, capturing space with a clarity that you’ve never seen unless you’ve been there, and some sort of special award should go to the effects team that created the seamless zero-gravity effects, the isolated sounds, and the crystal clear visuals of both serenity and destruction along the way… caught within long takes at that! Take note of the sequence where Bullock is working outside on a spacecraft and, due to the silence, we see the danger coming before she does. How the scene goes from relative calm to full-blown chaos, all amidst silence, and all in one seemingly cut-less long take… this is nigh-legendary action accomplished.

It’s certainly tempting to pooh-pooh some of Cuaron’s stylistic flair as “overly showy,” drawing attention to the camerawork being done and thus taking attention away from the story. However, I’ve never had that problem with his work. In fact, some of these moments are among the most memorable of the film. The shift in breathing from when we’re outside Bullock’s suit to when we’re in it with her; the focus on her distorted image in a tear that has floated away from her face; following Bullock as she darts through a space station, and some water beads in mid-air land on the lens before quickly rolling off. From his impossible camera tricks to the liquid that occasionally splashes on the lens of his camera, these touches immerse me deeper into Cuaron’s worlds, and in Gravity, the world is more important than the story anyway. We’ve seen this parable before, and in an actress like Bullock’s hands, it works just fine; we’ve never seen this world before. Not like this. Gravity, first and foremost, is an experience, with stunning spectacle, teeth-grinding tension, and some all-time great visual work.

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