**** out of ****
Alfonso Cuarón amazed me once with his film, Children of Men, where he had the ambition to shoot long parts of the movie without cutting and did so with flawless blocking to keep the ongoing imagery alive and intense. Uninterrupted takes have the power give a viewer the feeling that they are really witnessing something -and that feeling becomes stronger the longer the take lasts. This isn’t the necessary goal of every filmmaker, but it’s strange how rarely this cinematic approach is utilized. When you think about it, the tendency for current action movies to contain indulgent cutting doesn’t make sense. Modern production and post-production tools enable filmmakers to make a shot continue for an amazing amount of time. The opportunity is there and directors like Cuarón are willing to put forth the effort to make a movie like Gravity, which is one of the most amazing cinematic experiences I have witnessed.
Gravity has a simple formula placed in the most extraordinary circumstances. As astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) repair the Hubble telescope, an unexpected debris storm comes through, destroying their shuttle and crew, leaving the two marooned in the earth’s orbit (All the events I just mentioned take place in one shot). To make matters worse, they have lost contact with mission control (appropriately voiced by Ed Harris). What follows is a typical story of spiritual rebirth through survival. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of this movie’s emotional core. I’m just saying that it’s something we’ve seen in other movies. Cuarón’s powerful production is praiseworthy because he makes everything that happens in the movie feel more bold and important than it would have in a more conventional approach.
Another triumph of this film is in its casting, which went for top star power to guarantee a return on an expensive investment for a high-concept production. However, Clooney took a similar chance on Steven Soderbergh’s underrated science-fiction flop Solaris. In this film, he has been given equal billing with Bullock, but the movie is really carried by her. I’ve always liked Sandra Bullock, but rarely do I like her movies. This is maybe the best and most challenging role of her career. A good portion of the movie is computer animated with her face and voice being the only real elements we experience. The sound of her breathing often tells us more about her endurance in this horrifying predicament than her words do. When she boards a damaged and abandoned space station while shedding her space suit and creating a transition from her computer animated self to her real self, the bridge is seamless (I gave up guessing how they did the effects in this movie halfway through). We see the vulnerable human assuming the fetal position in zero gravity just to rest before figuring out what to do next.
There is a little expositional dialogue exchange between Clooney and Bullock when he is attempting to keep her spirits up by asking her where she’s from. This was the only part that felt silly because they’re astronauts and have shared close quarters for a long time. I would think they know every last boring detail of each other’s lives. Still, what does it matter? The feeling of floating through space above the earth with these people in gorgeous shot after long shot is a little too overwhelming to leave me nitpicking.
2013 has been a year of movies with some of the most beautiful outer-space special effects I’ve seen. Three flawed but engaging films, were Oblivion, Elysium and Star Trek Into Darkness –all of which had seamlessly executed scenes of things floating in space. This movie tops them all in terms of visuals and is a great movie in the process.