Sunday, October 6, 2013
When director, Alfonso Cuarón embarked on what became one of my favorite films of the last decade, his mind-boggling fable, Children Of Men, it had soon become clear that we were indeed in the hands of a potential master. Flash forward a long seven years, and one couldn't be blamed for feeling like something great(or troubled) might be on the horizon. Imagine the relief exhibited earlier today upon catching his long take space odyssey, Gravity, where not only the term is solidified, but is proven time and again in a breathless 90 minutes that is bound to have film scholars and fans alike sharing stories of their first viewing for years. It's the kind of technical and dramatic marvel that comes but once a generation, and possibly the very best film of its kind in several decades.
Gravity opens well above the Earth, as bio-med engineer, Ryan Stone is on her first space mission. Along with a small crew, including soon to be retired veteran astronaut, Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), she is installing a newly developed module for the Hubble telescope, when debris from a destroyed Russian satellite is sent hurtling toward her and her crew. Soon, she is almost completely lost before being saved by Kowalsky, and what had started as a most routine space mission, has now become a gut tightening fight for survival as the duo are forced to seek a means of rescue,..if there is any means of one at all. With communication with mission control lost, and humanity no less than thousands of miles away, the lone remaining crew members are at odds with the harshest of elements (not to mention the threat of the debris from earlier making a return attack come full orbit) as oxygen is quickly running out. With a plot this simple, it's easy to feel like this could very well just be a technical showcase (which it can most certainly be called - perhaps one of the most astonishing in recent memory), but the combination of so many more elements cements the entire film as something far more.
As the story unfolds, we are given active, yet potent glimpses into the inner lives of our leads. We learn that Kowalsky's penchant for shared stories have already been well worn among the crew, including those of a marriage gone south, and his rather cool-headed nature even as doom creeps around every corner. But the film's central concerns lie with the neophyte, Stone, who soon reveals a family tragedy that eventually led her to this path. Intermingling this with her growing affinity for silence, and a deep inability for "letting go", hers is a soul in deep need of rebirth. And with perhaps none-too-subtle imagery throughout each stage of the crisis, we get just that. And none of this would have been sold as well if Bullock weren't up to the task, which she is. Again, as straight forward as the film is, the range required for both leads is impressive considering how demanding it is for viewers to accept that the two are actually out there in the black. And both she and Clooney make such indelible impressions in what is clearly one of the most difficult shooting environments imaginable. (To balance between such intense physical action, and performance must make for some unique stories from all involved.) The end result, is hard to shake once it all abruptly ends.
Finding personal rebirth under the most inhospitable of circumstances is at the heart of Gravity. From a script originally written by Alfonso's son, Jonas, the film piles challenge upon challenge in the best tradition of classic survival tales, more often relegated to the mountains, or ocean. And while there is a certain popcorniness to the dialogue that does harken to earlier days of Hollywood, there is also a technical knowing at work, as well as a daredevil's spirit in how Cuarón and his crew expand upon the wild extended takes of Children. There are also some truly mindbending moments where the camera takes us from the usual observer's view of the action, to being Ryan, within her helmet. Cuarón's primary aim is to make this into a definitive immersive experience, and it succeeds tremendously. The ultimate effect feels almost like a technical lunge forward from Gaspar Noé's work on his film, Enter The Void. The thematic goal seems to be spiritually aligned with a certain celebrated filmmaker, as he sought to explore humanity's first voyages into space in that once so optimistic 2001. Coming out the other end, and becoming a reborn creature is key, and Bullock's Stone makes for an absorbing surrogate. We find ourselves becoming helpless, frightened, and even determined as the unknown beckons louder and louder.
There aren't enough words of praise for what Cuaron and company have executed here. What Gravity does for the film medium is enormous, and what it has to say to all people of the Earth is multifold. That pitch perfect mix between the art house and the multiplex. It's simply the kind of work that ushers in new eras, and offers up promise of what is to come with the cinema, and it does so with precision, energy, and soul. Indeed, "life in space is impossible". But will it always be? Will the frontiers always remain so? And what does it take to see through, and beyond our limits to reach them? Gravity dares us all to find reserves from within, and does so with grand scale and startling poignancy. Highly recommended.