GRAVITY

From the advanced buzz, it seems there are two camps on Alfonso Cuaron‘s latest film Gravity: Those who think it a game changing masterpiece of cinema, and those that think it’s a great technical exercise. We probably fall in the middle. There’s so much greatness in the film that what seems unnecessary seems doubly so. But you need to see this in a theater in 3D on the biggest screen possible because it’s that kind of experience.

The Players

The Plot:

On a routine space mission to fix a faulty satellite, an explosion sends debris hurling at rookie astronaut Ryan Stone (Bullock) and vet Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). The debris destroys their space shuttle and kills off the rest of the crew, so the two have to make their way to a Russian space station before the debris makes another orbit and kills them. But it’s not that simple (of course).

The Good:

  • 3D: Let’s face it, most modern films in 3D are that way because the studio wants to make more money, and the format has been used and abused since Avatar became the highest grossing picture of all time. In fact, of all the 3D movies in the recent boom, one of the best is Jackass 3D because it embraces and is about the gimmick. Nine times out of ten, it’s barely noticeable. But here it adds another level of pleasure/terror as the depth of field and the emptiness of space is so vast and overwhelming that it sucks you into the film right away and doesn’t let go.
  • Cuaron Having Fun: The film opens with sustained shots that run over ten minutes and could only be done in the modern age, where the fact that there’s no “cut” (even though these sequences are made up of assembled pieces) can be accomplished by not having to worry about getting it all “in camera” or the length of a film reel. As such, for much of the first half of the film, there’s not a lot of editing so much as the camera going anywhere it darn well pleases. And that helps not only set the mood but make a film that runs ninety minutes long feel more like a meal than many shorter films these days. You are in, and these mood-setting shots work like gangbusters.
  • George Clooney: If ever an actor was born to play a Right Stuff kind of astronaut, it’s George Clooney. Though the film mostly pays lip service to how awesome space exploration is (and casting Ed Harris as the voice of NASA is a direct nod to The Right Stuff), Clooney — who can’t help but tell anecdotes about previous missions and events at home — has the swagger and command that makes him so very perfect in the role.
  • Visual Design: Though it’s hard to imagine this film being watched on a DVD and having the same impact, even there the effects work and everything about the film’s look and feel is likely to be enveloping. It’s just a visual experience that is next level in terms of effects and narrative working together to create peril and mood.

The So So:

  • Look, it’s not a Perfect Film: There is so much great about this movie that what doesn’t work or seems grafted on grates a little. As a visual experience it’s amazing, but the film feels the need to give Bullock’s character a backstory that doesn’t really go anywhere, and it’s the sort of thing that works against the film. We’re already on board and paranoid and on the edge of our seat about the character’s survival, why would she need a dead family member as motivation to survive, or die or whatever that’s supposed to do? There are little things that seem unnecessary (there’s a sequence we’d rather not spoil, but if you know how cold space is, it’s pretty dumb), and they’re the sort of thing that may eventually sink the movie, or the sort of thing that can be ignored on multiple viewings. Nothing is a deal breaker, but it feels like someone put Cool Whip on top of the most delicious ice cream ever.
  • Don’t compare this to 2001: A Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is about a lot of things. There’s a lot to unpack in the film, and whether it’s a great movie, the greatest, or bullstuff, Kubrick is pursuing ideas about how space exploration fits into man’s evolution. That’s why it can inspire different theories and interpretations. Gravity is a simple story of survival, with space as the backdrop. It’s not really about much so much as the journey, and it’s powerful and effective, but it’s not deep.

Overall:

A phenomenal viewing experience, Gravity is the rare film that justifies paying more to watch it in 3D and Imax, and more than that going to the theater to see a film. This isn’t the sort of thing that’s just as good at home, it’s the sort of grand spectacle that seems rare in our modern landscape. Even if the film isn’t one of the greatest movies of all time, there’s more than enough reasons to suggest this is a great film, and one of the best films of the year.

Rating: 8.8/10

Gravity opens October 4.

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