Gravity: 3D Spectacle

By Sandra Olmsted

Director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, Gravity, marries a simple, straightforward narrative to evocative visual complexity and delivers a subtle mediation of grief in the midst of a minimalistic, popcorn-selling, special effects-laden, blockbuster. The film opens with a stunningly long take, approximately 13 minutes, revealing three astronauts working and playing around the Hubble telescope with the shuttle, the earth, and the infinite of space tumbling around them. Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), the mission commander, tools around in his jet pack contemplating his last, preretirement walk in space. Like a 1970s cop movie, it announces retirement equals death, but Kowalsky, a jokester, also has to say, half kiddingly, to his fellow astronauts and mission control, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” Meanwhile, Shariff (voice of Paul/Phaldut Sharma), a seasoned astronaut, and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a nervous medical engineer on her first mission, work on the telescope. The view of earth and the feeling of weightlessness mesmerize the audience, who share the expereicne via the topnotch 3D. The silence has a beauty all its own, and Cuaron lets the audience experience the peacefulness of airless, gravity-free space. The silence turns frightening when s message from Houston alerts them to incoming debris from an exploded Russian spy satellite. Kowalsky coolly and firmly insists that Ryan drop what she is doing, and they head back to the relative safety of the shuttle. Fortunately, for Ryan and Kowalsky, they didn’t make it to the shuttle; however, like the odd member of a Star Trek away team, Shariff isn’t so lucky. Shuttle gone, Ryan spinning off into space, and Houston unable to communicate, Kowalsky takes charge. After calming and retrieving Ryan and securing Shariff’s body, Kowalsky uses his few spurts of jet pack fuel to send them towards the International Space Station which is their only hope for survival before the debris circles the earth in just 90 minutes. Will Stone’s air supply runs out? Does Kowalsky have enough fuel to get them there? Ryan shows off what she has learned in training comes when she must translate skills learned in a simulator to flying Russian and Chinese escape pods, which are fortunately the same. While this indicates a level of cooperation in space, it doesn’t explain the Russians blowing up their dying satellite in such a way as to imperil American astronauts and the International Space Station.

Plot problems aside, Cuarón’s film has a deeper meaning. The spiraling off into space is a metaphor for Ryan’s grief over the sudden, strange accident that killed her daughter, which gives meaning to Ryan’s choice between giving up or fighting to survive, but, if the viewer hasn’t embraced the theme of dealing with grief, the story seems to veer into maudlinness. Ryan’s survival requires resourcefulness, resilience, and luck, much like in Life of Pi; however, the characters face different situations leading up to the moment they must decide whether to survive or not. Since Gravity use the metaphor of Ryan’s grieving process, her journey is different than Pi’s even though grief is certainly a part of Pi’s journey, his remains primarily spiritual while Ryan’s pragmatically leads her through grief to acceptance with only small nods to the spiritual. The film contrasts the silence of space and the brilliance of the Steven Price’s score, the darkness of space and the brilliance of the sun peeking over Earth’s horizon, the vast freedom of space and the clausophobic confines of the manmade interiors, the cold of space and the warmth of suits and ships, the acceptance of death and the fight to survive.

The film relies on an exceptionally talented production team to create a gripping cinematic experience. In addition to Price’s musical counterpoints, the sound bed created by production mixer Chris Munro and sound designer Glenn Freemantle uses silence to better effect then most blockbusters do loud explosions. Looking as through it was shot on location, the film stuns with its realistic look and feel. Shots of long duration reveal no seams in the fabric of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s perfect use of 3D and deep focus, production designer Andy Nicholson’s imaginative and realistically detailed sets, and special effect guru Tim Webber’s computer generated images which look real enough to reach out and touch. While objects hovering in the weightless environs create layers in the 3D world, Lubezki’s long, lingering takes allow plenty of time to wonder how it was done, to marvel at the beauty and skill, and to experience what being in space must be like. Cuaron and his team have pushed the technology to its limits, making their film entrancing and plausible, and setting the standard higher for films to come.

Although the dramatically straightforward script, written by Alfonso Cuarón and his son, Jonas Cuarón, has its problems, Bullock and Clooney bring the characters to life. Despite the limitations of costumes which cover their bodies and obscure their faces, despite having only one scene together without the suits, despite the realistic, but minimal, dialogue that leaves little room for connecting, these two veteran actors achieve chemistry. While Clooney’s chauvinistic flirt, who listens to oldies and refers to his many great adventures, is the opposite of Bullock’s subdued scientist, who grieves her child, they reveal themselves to be more as the film goes on, and that’s a nice surprise embedded more in the performances of the actors than the script. Although some might consider her grief a contrivance to keep the audience invested in her survival, Bullock carries off her character’s struggle with death and grief with great sensitivity, intelligence, and vulnerability while enduring extraordinary physical and intellectual demands of filmming weightless scenes, of acting with and responding to CGI images and events, and of being alone in most scenes. In a nod to Apollo 13, Ed Harris provides the voice of Houston aka  mission control.

While the theme of grief provides Ryan with motivation in her solo scenes, it’s the 3D spectacle and the acting that make this film work, and not existential contemplations of the mysteries of grief, time, space, and the universe which would validated the absurd comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where Kubrick’s magnum opus was futuristic, Gravity reflects space travel as anyone with a million dollars or so can experience; at least, until now, when an IMAX ticket will allow anyone to experience space travel as realistically as it has ever been done on screen thus far. A Warner Bros. release and presentation of an Esperanto Filmoj, Heyday Films production, Gravity runs 90 minutes and is rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language. Gravity is in theaters now. It’s quite a ride!

More of Olmsted’s reviews are available at <www.thecinematicskinny.com>.

 



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