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.

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