Friday, October 4, 2013

What Goes Up Must Come Down: Gravity


Apollo 13 meets WALL-E. Throw in Clooney as Buzz Lightyear.


Director Alfonso Cuarón has created a dazzling visual experience that depicts the gripping ordeal of astronauts Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kuwalski (George Clooney) who are cast adrift in space after a high-velocity debris storm destroys their space shuttle. Cuarón maintains the tension throughout the film and uses his camera well to establish a sense of hopeless isolation as he frames Dr. Stone floating amidst a sea of stars or hovering over Earth’s continents far, far below.

Despite an irritating performance by Clooney as the ever-cheerful seasoned spaceman, playing country music and cracking jokes to the very end, this film is completely transporting for most of its 90-minute length.

The film is a simple story of survival against all odds, so there is not much story. There is an eerie moment as Stone and Kuwalski are floating toward the International Space Station when I thought the film might go off into a surrealistic, mind-blowing 2001: A Space Odyssey vortex. I would have enjoyed that, but the film is what it is - a basic story of perseverance and triumph.

The film’s greatest misfortune, however, is its overbearing music. After a wonderful opening scene as the camera moves through the vastness of space and slowly closes in on the astronauts floating silently through their repair work on Hubble, the first onslaught of the debris is accompanied by blasting music. Instead of continuing with the wonderful silence of the opening, Cuarón feels he has to compensate for the absence of explosive noises by filling this majestic void with overly dramatic music that distracts the viewer from the thrilling images.

(SPOILERS) Another misstep is the scene in which Stone (Bullock) propels herself from the Soyuz space capsule by means of a fire extinguisher – just like WALL-E! They should have steered clear of something already done by a comic character in a Disney/Pixar animated film.

I would have left out the return of George Clooney’s Kuwalski in a dream which comes off as silly when a spookier appearance would have better suited the situation. (END SPOILERS)


There's nothing outstanding here, but Bullock’s performance grew on me. I feel it takes the first half of the film for Bullock to find her character and establish some engaging presence. She really starts to come through Academy Award-winning artifice in the touching moment when she realizes her predicament is hopeless and she shuts down the oxygen flow to end her life.

Other than voiceovers (including one by Ed Apollo 13 Harris), Bullock and Clooney constitute the entire cast, so it’s a little unfortunate that Clooney is miscast. He plays to caricature, much like a one-note Ronald Colman jesting in the shadow of guillotine.

Meanwhile, Bullock is slow to take the lead and hit her touching notes, and since she’s the only girl in town, this weakens the film’s emotional impact, an impact that cannot be fabricated by hitting Stone’s victorious touchdown on Earth with a blasting triumphal fanfare that's almost embarrassing.


All of them are visual:

The film holds your attention with dizzying shots of destruction in space, and during the slow bits, you can have fun identifying the features of Earth's continents far below. I love geography, so I found this very exciting. The space views of Earth are based on actual photographs. Especially arresting are the shots of Cairo, Suez, and the Nile, as well as the lower extent of Italy's boot. Some of the outstanding images include the sunrise, the moonrise, and the aurora borealis.

I am not a fan of 3D, but this is the best example of 3D I have ever seen. Starting with the first shot, there is a depth to everything that makes you share Stone's fear of heights. Later, the floating tear reflecting the hopeless Stone is spectacular.

(SPOILER) Although the gosh-darn preview gives away the calamity at the opening of the film, that scene is trumped by an amazingly intricate moment of destruction when the debris strikes the International Space Station. This is my favorite scene. (END SPOILER)


I have seen it twice in 3D, and I could easily see it again. I'd like to try it in 2D to see if it retains its visual depth. A third time through, if I find my attention straying from Bullock's performance, I can still feast my eyes on the features of Earth below.

NOTE: I saw it a second time in 3D, then a third time in 2D, and I must say I was just as immersed in the visuals in 2D as 3D because 2D has the advantage of deeper color saturation. As a matter of fact, I noticed details I hadn't noticed in 3D because they stood out more. Dr. Stone's tear may not float out of the screen, but it stands out brightly and reflects Bullock longer as the focus sharpens on it.


Steve's Blog said...

I am admittedly still digesting the feast that was Gravity in 3D last night, though I can say I did not wholly enjoy the experience. And I am speaking on a purely entertainment, keep-me-on-the-edge-of-my-seat perspective. This it did not do, not even during its catastrophic intervals. This is not to say that I can admit having never seen a film like this before, and was impressed with nearly every minute with what I saw. But it was like appreciating an art museum, while at the same time, wanting to get out because lunchtime was approaching.

That being said, as I reflect on what Cauron and his brother managed to accomplish in their undertaking conceptually, I am convinced that the film is itself a recreation of the miracle of birth from conception to delivery with each trimester represented by the three space stations. And the daughter aspect is the hint of reincarnation. Even Clooney's incessant rambling of the same stories and music supports this notion of rebirth. Is it not fair to say he is the egg attaching himself to Bullock's "life" and then allowing it to grow within the womb of the second station. The imagery grows less subtle during these passages. And the delivery at the end is even less subtle than that.

On this allegorical level, I admire the film as much as for its technical virtuosity. And I want to believe Cuaron is going for more than a wow factor, perhaps even commenting on the existentialism of reincarnation. As Bullock says, "I drive and drive and drive..." Maybe this is the English teacher watching a popcorn film, but would love to know what you think. Thanks for letting me share!

Hokahey said...

Very interesting perspective. The rebirth theme certainly fits, especially with Stone "learning to walk" in the final moment. I never thought of this interpretation! Good job. Thanks for sharing the insight.

With Stone attached to Kuwalski by an umbilical cord, that makes Clooney the placenta!

Craig said...

131 minutes? The one I saw was 92.

Hokahey said...

Oops. Meant an hour and 31 minutes. Guess that's wrong too. IMDB says 90 minutes.

Whatever the length,what did you think of the movie?

Craig said...

I liked it quite a bit. The most successful "populist" space movie in quite a while. Reminded me of "Titanic," in a weird way: great spectacle + corny dialogue, yet the dialogue ultimately not mattering that much to me.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment, Craig. Yes, in many ways it is Titanic in outer space. Woman survives. Guy dies, sacrificing himself for woman. Woman has learned and gained strength as a result of the disaster. Yes, corny dialogue, but it doesn't quite matter in the long run.

Jason Bellamy said...

I watched this in 2D. (I'm done with 3D.)

It's certainly visually impressive. And regardless of if you see it in 2D or 3D, Cuaron captures the "3D-ness" of space better than any other movie I've ever seen -- and that's saying something. Over and over again, we see how that's no "up" or "down," just over there, and over there. Being in space is like being a slipper tumbling in a dryer.

I agree that the music sometimes goes too far. I also agree that Clooney's character seems like a complete misfire. I have no problem with his cartoonish behavior in Stone's vision; that plays right to me -- it's him, but not him. But the movie never really makes him "real."

And frankly it doesn't make Bullock's character seem very real either. There's emotional payoff in the end simply because of what we've watched her go through to try to survive. But all that stuff with her back story seems artificial. And it doesn't help that Bullock looks strangely plastic and rather androgynous, like she's a clone built in a lab that drifted out of some other sci-fi movie and into this one.

I saw this after seeing CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, and while this movie is more technically daring, the former shows the power of connecting us with a believable character played by a strong actor. All of GRAVITY's visuals will last in my memory, but for all its spectacular qualities it still seems like a film that succeeds despite of its faults rather than an outright triumph.

Hokahey said...

Jason, thanks. Yes, Gravity has its weaknesses and loopholes. We agree on Clooney. I could have done without him completely. I think Bullock did all right, but this one-performance film needed a much stronger actress - someone adept at showing you more in her eyes.

As for Stone's backstory - I kind of like that she is mourning the loss of her daughter (it might have been nice for her to question the existence of God as she floats between Earth and the universe), but it struck me that there's no way Kuwalsky would not have known about her daughter. By the time they go through all the training and prep together, you'd think he would have known by then - especially since every detail of her life is probably available to the captain.

As for the film's grand visuals - I had to see them again. I saw the film a fourth time - in 2D - and I was still dazzled by what I saw and gripped by what happens.

Jason Bellamy said...

"here's no way Kuwalsky would not have known about her daughter"

Well, maybe he wouldn't have known about that. But he'd at least have known where the fuck she was from and if she were married.

Hokahey said...

True - or maybe he knows all about her but he's acting like he doesn't just to get her to talk.