We start on a high this week: So high, we're drifting into eternity in Gravity. Then it's a rapid descent through the atmosphere with Curse of Chucky and a final plummet into Hell with Battle of the Year.
EXPECTATIONS: Early buzz suggests that the latest from Children of Men director Alfonso Cuarón is not only the best film of the year, but also the savior of big-budget science-fiction cinema, and even a much-needed kick in the pants for America's waning interest in space exploration. This seems like a lot to ask from a film where Sandra Bullock spins around in a spacesuit, so all I'm hoping is that Gravity simply entertains me. Let's be reasonable here...
REALITY: Few films can instill in their audiences the sort of existential dread that ebbs and flows throughout Gravity. It lies somewhere in the gray zone between science-fiction, horror and Hitchcockian thriller, but underneath all of its genre trappings, this remains a very grounded story. There's beauty in the film's simplicity; that simplicity just happens to involve a revolution in filmmaking technology.
Poor Sandra Bullock, stranded in space miles above her Oscar.
Orbiting 372 miles above the Earth, the crew of the space shuttle Explorer is busy upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope. While senior officer Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) tests out a jetpack in an attempt to break a spacewalking record, specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) installs a new system into the telescope. This opening scene is performed in one fluid motion. Critics have pegged it as lasting anywhere from twelve to twenty minutes; let's split the difference and call it sixteen. Any way you slice it, the entire first reel of Gravity takes place in a single unbroken shot.
After the Russians fire a missile at one of their satellites, the shrapnel causes a chain reaction that destroys dozens of other satellites. The resulting field of debris pummels the shuttle and her crew, sending Stone spiraling out into space, with only a chatty Kowalski to rescue her. Cut off from Houston (represented by Ed Harris's voice), the two return to the destroyed shuttle and must figure out a way back down to Earth.
Hold on, George. Hold on to your illustrious acting and directing career.Now just how in the hell do you stretch out a situation like that to 90 minutes? Admittedly, the bulk of Gravity is fairly episodic. Stone and Kowalski escape certain death on the space shuttle, only to venture out and escape certain death in a number of different ways on the International Space Station. Then some more white-knuckle action takes place and death is evaded once more. With all these twists, turns, dips and loops, Gravity becomes a thrill ride not unlike Speed, in which Sandra Bullock drove a bus through every single person in Los Angeles just to stay alive.
But there is more to this film than simple tricks, pop quizzes and death-defying escapes. Beneath the film's action-thriller framework lies a story about how fragile we humans are. For all of our strength and ingenuity as a species, it takes little more than a single piece of shrapnel flying at the right speed to destroy a life. It's that sort of cruel twist of fate that drives Ryan Stone, and while her backstory feels a bit perfunctory in the grand scheme of the film, it nevertheless informs her every action.
Gravity occasionally goes out of its way to punctuate Stone's journey with imagery stolen right out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, because otherwise science-fiction professors would give this film an automatic F for not citing its sources. After she makes it to the ISS, Ryan's first action is to ditch her spacesuit and curl up into the fetal position, her tether floating behind her like an umbilical cord. Later we see her perform a much more symbolic gesture, and the score practically wills itself into becoming "Also sprach Zarathustra." Gravity is not a very subtle film.
While Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki deserve much of the credit, some of it must also go to Bullock. With only her face visible for most of the film, she conveys Stone's mental state so convincingly that it's sometimes hard to believe this is actually a meticulously rehearsed performance by an Oscar-winning actress and not the deranged ramblings of an Oscar-winning actress suddenly flung into space by a lunatic filmmaker.
Look at that giant blue Golden Globe award!
Cuarón draws us completely into the world he's created. He uses every plane of action at his disposal, which is an absolute marvel in 3D. While Stone and Kowalski watch debris floating past them in the foreground, we look behind them and watch complete and utter mayhem taking place in the background. This amazingly fluid camerawork couples with Steven Price's hauntingly abrasive score to create an extraordinary sense of tension, the kind of tension that lingers long after the film has ended.
Gravity made me intensely aware of my ability to manipulate my surroundings. Case in point: I found myself having trouble with simple tasks like driving my car home from the theater. My hands trembled as I gripped the steering wheel, and I thanked the gods of science and engineering there was something to grasp to keep me from flying off into the inky abyss! I grazed the curb at least twice on the way home, and each time I had a minor panic attack, because things were not going according to plan and I was about to be obliterated by the combined might of Newtonian physics and my own shortcomings as a human being.
Some have leapt right out on the proverbial limb and declared that Gravity redefines the language of cinema. In truth, the language remains largely unchanged. The tools used to make Gravity may be new, but the story and the language used to tell it are decidedly old hat. It takes the cookie-cutter grandeur of James Cameron and dunks it into a steaming vat of molten Hitchcock. You have seen this story before, and you will most certainly see it again. Personally, I plan on seeing it again tomorrow.
|Meaningful CGI Teardrops||10/10|
|The Feeling of Utter Helplessness||10/10|
MINORITY REPORT: Upon seeing the trailer, one of my friends said she didn't get what's so scary about floating out into the wide open nothing of space, untethered. I just... I don't know what to do with that. - Sean "Keanu Grieves" Hanson
"When I got home, I squeezed the toothpaste directly into my eye! Stumbling around in pain and a blackness not unlike the vast expanse of space, I bashed my head into the bathroom mirror! Writing blind, I transcribed these words in blood...." *Jay Dub's post-Gravity night continues* - garbage day
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