LITTLE BIG FILM
Oscar Nominee Movie Review – “Gravity”
Review by Steven Lewis
*This review contains spoilers*
It’s one of the greatest movie trailers ever.
The original teaser that played in theaters ahead of “Gravity”’s release was astounding – beautiful and heart-pounding in equal measure (just as the movie itself would prove to be): two astronauts, a man and a woman, hover in awesome weightlessness in space above the Earth. Suddenly there is a violent disturbance – a crash or explosion of some kind. The lines which had kept the astronauts tethered to their vessel are broken and the two go hurtling out into space, amidst the sounds of confusion and panic across the radio.
And that’s it.
That’s all anyone knew about “Gravity” ahead of its October 4th release last year. No plot details, no character background – nothing was given away in those initial 90 seconds. Certainly nothing to help us contextualize what we had just witnessed. Just an impressive sense of the vastness and eerie beauty of space, punctured by a cool-as-shit disaster scenario. Exciting? You bet. But SURELY the movie must be about more than that.
It isn’t. And that, I say, is the genius of “Gravity”. In a movie age where more and more is being thrown on the screen – more computer effects, bigger armies of monsters and baddies, numbingly epic running times – “Gravity” shows the beauty that can result in paring down. In its compact 91 minutes, it concerns itself with no more, and no less, than the struggle of one woman to survive a disaster in outer space, and her efforts to make it back to Earth in one piece.
I’m not gonna go on here about the purely technical achievements of the film – for the simple fact that they have been exhaustively detailed elsewhere. Suffice it to say, director Alfonso Cuaron proves himself nothing less than a genius at immersing us in the film’s outer space environment: the visuals, the camera movement, the palpable sense of both weightlessness and claustrophobia that is conveyed by his work is truly a marvel to behold. Anyone who doesn’t see this one on the biggest screen possible is doing themselves an enormous disservice. This is the very stuff movies were invented for!
But, to paraphrase Forrest Gump – “that’s all I wanna say about that.” Because to go on too long about “Gravity”’s technical prowess – as mightily impressive as it is – misses the film’s real achievement. As a matter of fact, I’d even argue that’s the easy part. Cuaron’s inherent grace and tastefulness notwithstanding, we live in a time where visual wonders are ever easier to put on the screen; new breakthroughs in film technology have made the most fantastical of effects available to even the hackiest of directors. What’s truly wanting, much of the time, is what to DO with all these technical gee-gaws – what service to put them to.
I can easily envision another big budget movie matching “Gravity”’s evocation of outer space and its wonderful visual splendor, but then stopping there. Or rather, NOT stopping there but adding more and more layers of STUFF upon it: an alien creature, perhaps, or a rival spaceship; maybe some kind of strange and complicated interstellar artifact that our heroes must figure out and/or grapple with. At the very least, your run of the mill Hollywood blockbuster wouldn’t even go before the cameras until it had availed itself of a sharply defined “bad guy”: an evil and malevolent presence, who dogs our protagonist at every turn.
The thing is, “Gravity” DOES have such a villain – just, not in human form. For, in this movie – freed from the clutter and contrivances of typical Hollywood storytelling – the central dilemma is made an existential one: the antagonizing force is not some big bad thing “out there” – but rather the main character’s own torpor and lack of motivation toward life. These are what must be vanquished and triumphed over if the hero is to claim victory. This allows the impersonal vastness of space to be experienced here as more than just the latest cool environment spun out of a Hollywood hard drive. Instead, through the skill of all involved, it becomes instead a metaphor for the dark, impersonal void we all must face down in order to stay hopeful and engaged with life.
As Dr. Ryan Stone, Sandra Bullock plays a woman who has shut down: she performs her job (as an astrophysicist) with dutiful precision, but there is no joy in her being – only a kind of glum and self-effacing detachment. What is amazing is how the film conveys this so clearly to us in a minimum of screen time, and without recourse to the actors’ faces or full physical being. It is done solely through the radio communication that Bullock’s character has with her male counterpart – George Clooney’s roguish and fun-loving astronaut, Matt Kowalski – as the two are hovering in space working repairs on the Hubble telescope during the film’s first fifteen minutes. They engage in what seems to us initially as no more than good-natured banter, prompted mainly by Kowalski’s mischievous sense of fun. No real “information” gets imparted during this sequence (beyond establishing what they are doing there) – but yet you later realize, once disaster strikes (in the form of debris from a broken Russian satellite ramming into them and sending them off course) that you actually know everything you need to know about each of these characters. So much so, that the separate responses each has to the predicament they find themselves in make total emotional sense to us: Clooney is calm, pragmatic, and hopeful; Bullock is overwhelmed, frightened, and seemingly ready to give up at every turn. Since her character is the “newbie” in space (as opposed to Clooney’s road-tested veteran), she naturally becomes the audience’s surrogate, and we hold on for dear life to every reassuring word and suggestion coming to us from Clooney’s end of the radio. When further complications send him hurtling out of reach toward certain death, it is doubly heartbreaking: in a mere sliver of screen time, we have come to love this guy and will miss him deeply; and no way do we feel good about Bullock’s chances at survival without him. Which means, by implication, we don’t feel good about OUR chances in this strange environment, either. By making Bullock’s character all that we have to hold on to, the film edges past a rousing adventure story we’re watching as outsiders – and instead puts us in a place where we feel our own survival is at stake.
That “Gravity” so powerfully and viscerally fosters these connections is a wonder that goes well beyond its visual splendor. This is top-notch screenwriting as well (by Cuaron and his son Jonas), along with exceptional casting and vocal acting. Bullock and Clooney are absolute perfection here, and it is vital that they be so. Of particular note is Clooney. Bullock will eventually have more of herself to work with – after she makes it back to the ship and strips off her space suit – but Clooney is only really ever a voice to us, and the strength of character he is able to display just by that, and the warm rapport he builds not only with Bullock but with the entire audience is amazingly palpable. There is a point later in the movie where his character appears to make a kind of return – and at the screening I attended, the audience was so happy to see him that there was actually widespread applause. That level of investment and identification in a character is the mark of a truly classic motion picture.
My gosh, there’s so much more I can say about this awesome, overwhelming, lovely little motion picture (interesting how it plays as both “awesome” and yet also “little” at the same time, no? What a feat of movie magic THAT is!): There’s the wrenching humanism of Bullock’s central performance; the brilliant use of Clooney as the metaphorical “life force” of the picture; the deeply tender yet ironic scene of Dr. Stone’s radio contact with an Alaskan fisherman back on Earth; and of course the revelation and motif-like use of the life event which caused Bullock’s character to turn away from life in the first place. But I don’t think I want to atomize each of these things too closely: they deserve not to be laid out and analyzed as separate components, but rather experienced as part of the fully formed, wonderfully crafted whole of this motion picture. The point is, the grace notes this movie hits would not be possible except that it takes the TIME to do so; it makes them its priority, rather than merely dragging us along on yet another wild action-movie adventure. That “Gravity” takes us into outer space is impressive, but is really the least of its accomplishments; it’s what it does to our INNER space that makes it a film for the ages.
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
Release Date: October 4, 2013
Run Time: 91 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Brothers