Friday, October 4, 2013

In Theaters: GRAVITY (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron.  Written by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron.  Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, voices of Ed Harris, Phaldut Sharma. (PG-13, 91 mins)

Not since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) has space looked as convincingly vast and felt so real as in Alfonso Cuaron's stunning GRAVITY, a triumph of CGI done right that unquestionably raises the bar in a way that very few films do in this era.  The story itself isn't very complicated:  Three astronauts on a spacewalk to repair a scanner on the Hubble Telescope are hit by debris from an exploded Russian satellite.  One, Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) is killed along with the crew inside the shuttle.  This leaves two survivors:  veteran NASA rock star Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who's a rookie on her first mission.  The shuttle and the Hubble are destroyed and the cool, experienced Kowalski, forever telling the same exaggerated stories of his personal exploits to mission control in Houston (voiced by Ed Harris), gets serious and tries to keep Stone calm while improvising a plan to drift to the International Space Station with little booster power and with both survivors running out of oxygen.

To say any more about the plot would spoil the drama that unfolds in the script by Cuaron and his son Jonas.  GRAVITY has been compared to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY but it doesn't have the same philosophical depth that the Kubrick film offered.  GRAVITY's strengths lie in taking CGI imagery to places unexplored until now.  The term "game-changer" is thrown about with wild abandon these days, but it applies here.  Opening with a continuous 17-minute shot (as CHILDREN OF MEN demonstrated, Cuaron is a master of long takes, or at the very least, seamless editing), we're introduced to the three astronauts going about their business--Kowalski and Shariff joking with each other and with mission control, Stone hard at work while battling the hangover-like lethargy of one's first time in space--the camera constantly floating around the actors and the structures, with Earth and open space lingering in the background.  Cuaron and THE TREE OF LIFE cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (veteran cinematographer Michael Seresin is also credited with "additional photography") manage to make space look simultaneously vast and claustrophobic, and once communication with Houston is cut off (they continue to radio Houston "in the blind" in case they actually can hear them), there's almost no sound other than the dialogue, the actors' breathing, and the effectively eerie electronic score by Steven Price.

Clooney doesn't have to do much other than be "George Clooney," so it's Bullock who does the dramatic heavy lifting in one of her best performances.  Venturing into space to cut herself as far off from humanity as possible after finding herself unable to cope with an unbearable tragedy, Bullock's Stone is aptly-named.  During small-talk with Kowalski, she says her favorite thing is silence, which is initially taken as a sarcastic jab at his endless chattiness, but is eventually revealed to have a much more painful cause.  As the script presents the protagonists with one increasingly difficult, life-threatening, and nerve-shredding obstacle after another, it's no surprise in a major Hollywood movie that Stone will eventually find her inner strength and summon the will to survive, but the writing isn't really meant to break any new ground (of course, this is Kowalski's "one last mission before retiring," though he never specifically states he's "getting too old for this shit").  The achievements here are of sight and sound.  So much of today's CGI is slapdash and only serves to call out the artifice of the surroundings, but watching GRAVITY, it actually looks like Cuaron took his stars and a crew into space and shot on location.  Of course, this only goes to show that CGI can look great if enough time and care is put into it, and it's used for legitimate purposes rather than time-saving, penny-pinching bullshit.  It's amazing that such a widely-utilized technology has only been mastered by a small handful of filmmakers.  Even the 3-D post-conversion looks as good as a film actually shot in 3-D, further proof that things don't have to look as crappy as they often do.  Shot in 2011 and with its original fall 2012 release date delayed a year to allow Cuaron the time he needed to get it right, GRAVITY sets new standards in CGI and effects wizardry and is the kind of immersive audio/visual experience that should be seen on the largest screen possible.

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