The Perfect Pull of Gravity

GRAVITY's stunning opening sucks you in.

GRAVITY’s stunning opening sucks you in.

In our era of instant interconnectedness, ADD and immediate gratification, Alfonso Cuaron’s bold new film, Gravity, demands viewers to Watch…and Listen.

The film opens with a spectacular continuous long shot of planet Earth from outer space.  Slowly we begin to hear the static-laden chatter of astronauts and mission control grow louder and clearer while the camera leisurely pans in closer and closer to those working outside of a shuttle docked at the Hubble Space telescope.  First-time space traveler, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is installing a new scanning device to give NASA a better way to watch the skies in deep space.  Longtime astral cowboy Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is out for a “Sunday drive” around the shuttle and telescope overseeing things while telling tales and keeping things light with mission control.  But then a frantic warning comes from Houston.  Stay calm.  Get back inside.  The Russians have taken out one of their own satellites.  The debris is traveling high above the globe at breakneck speed slamming into other satellites and anything in its way causing an avalanche of deadly metal to come hurtling right towards our dear crew.  Suddenly, in the vast distance of blackness above a blue and white sphere, the debris is coming into view.

The next ninety minutes become an epic cosmic ballet of white-knuckle suspense, eye-popping visuals and ensorcell acting.  Shot in 3D, the photography of Emmaneul Lubezki (who previously luxuriated in the magic of the cosmos in Malick’s The Tree of Life) is wholly immersive under Cuaron’s self-assured direction.  Cuaron spins his Oscar-winning mega stars through the calamities like a choreographer or puppeteer without strings.  There’s not a single moment in the film’s airtight run time where the director isn’t in complete control.  Cuaron, who has for years been honing his craft and solidifying his status as the best director yet to make a great film, has finally done it.  But he hasn’t just created a great film, he’s surpassed every expectation we have of our autuers and delivered what comes across as a flawless cinematic exercise that holds the audience in its pull for every second.  The way Cuaron and Lubezki move the camera and alter POV’s, from wide shots of ramshackle stations hovering over the immense world to the extreme intimacy of being inside Bullock’s space helmet as she tumbles like an acrobat into the darkness, gives the illusion of being right there in the thick vacuum of space.

Don't Let Me Go!

Don’t Let Me Go!

There’s not one element that hasn’t been executed with the greatest of care, from the seamless special effects to the judicious editing to Steven Price’s low-key but evocative score, which hints at the most intimate notes from a Hans Zimmer chorus while holding back until the film’s final cathartic moments where it releases an epic swell.  Price’s music is expertly woven into the sound design which is painstakingly orchestrated to create tension, while the production designers carefully place objects of heavy symbolism (notice the items floating inside the stations…the rook chess piece, for instance) amidst Cuaron’s and Lubezki’s transformative photography (take note of how they frame Bullock’s body as she takes a brief moment of rest after getting through the airlock and wrestling out of her constrictive suit).

Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas anchor the script with big themes about letting go and metaphorical rebirth.  If there is one false note, it might be the surface level self-help dialogue that occasionally makes its way into the storytelling, but it’s easily forgiven when spoken by two stars in complete control of their craft and set against such a magnificent awe-inspiring backdrop.

Clooney has become a master at playing likable variations of himself, always charming, always in control, stubbornly heroic.  His soothing voice anchors the drama and allows the viewer to take a deep breath in the quiet moments between the melee.

Bullock gives the performance you didn't know she could give.

Bullock gives the performance you didn’t know she could give.

Meanwhile, it is Bullock, who shockingly so, owns the film.  Hers is a physical and demanding performance requiring primeval emotion the likes of which I never thought she could display so effectively.  It actually helps that she has the stigma of America’s Movie Sweetheart, as she innately uses that to her advantage – nobody wants to see poor Sandy get hurt – but she bursts through that mirage showing she is an actress of immense range who can physically throw herself into peril for the sake of art.  After the film, I racked my brain to imagine another actress who could’ve pulled it off.  More consummate thespians like Cate Blanchett would’ve cracked under the physical demands, while someone like a Charlize Theron would’ve pulled off the physical aspects while rendering the emotions cold.  Only perhaps Naomi Watts (who has battled Hollywood delusions, a giant ape, cholera and a tsunami) could’ve stood in, but even then…in some ways…without Bullock…it might have been a different film.

I won’t spoil it, but I ask you to think about this after you’ve experienced the film.  Could it have been anyone else in Cuaron’s final mythic moments other than Bullock?

Gravity is an explosive conflagration of stars, in every shape and form.  And Cuaron has found a way to wrangle them all into a giant symphonic rodeo of sights, sounds and emotions, thus creating the grandest cinematic entertainment witnessed in many moons.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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10 comments on “The Perfect Pull of Gravity

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    While I would question whether Bullock really owns the film (for me it is the triumvirate of Cuaron/Lubezki/Price) I can’t deny she was of course the emotional catalyst and she delivers the best performance of her career. This is one of your all-time greatest reviews David–really observant and beautifully-written. I also think GRAVITY is a great film, and I haven’t even seen the 3D nor IMAX version. I plan on re-visiting as early as late week.

    • I saw it in 3D but not IMAX. The 3D is really the best work in that field I have ever seen. You really feel like you are up there in space with them. And unlike Avatar (which was visually a marvel in its own right)…if FEELS REAL – it’s not some far-flung fantasy world – it’s the Space right over our heads…right outside our door.

  2. Prakash J says:

    Just glimpsed the universe through Cuaron’s lens: breathless!

    A carefully observed and nuanced review David. Puts so much in perspective after watching the movie.

    Well, cinema and its players (actors) do play tricks on us. It seems incomprehensible to visualize anyone but Sandra Bullock for this role; it’s like she was born for this. Like you aptly described, she breaks the stigma once and for all and gets her redemption. But, if I do have to think of someone other than our all-time-favorite Naomi Watts, it’s one of these: Marion Cotillard, Natalie Portman, or Carey Mulligan.

    What do you think?

    • Hey, Prakash – glad you loved the film!

      As for your list of actresses…I don’t think Portman would’ve worked. She played unhinged very well in Black Swan, but I don’t think she would’ve been effective here – hasn’t ever really shown that kind of strength and would’ve played the emotional side as weepy. Mulligan is too young and fragile-looking – she could not have pulled off the grueling physicality of the role. Cottilard is an interesting thought – I would not have suggested her initially, but after Rust & Bone – she clearly could deal with the physical nature of this role and certainly has the range to tackle the emotional aspect as well without coming off as weepy or weak.

  3. Prakash J says:

    Cotillard was my first afterthought. Glad we vote for her. But the reality of the matter is that Cuaron made a bang-on casting decision he’ll never regret.

    I just Googled on this topic (FYI: my initial choices were not based on a search and just an instant afterthought), and looks like Angelina Jolie was the original choice (really, eh) and Portman came in next, only to drop out later.

    Apparently, a list of top stars, including the likes of Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Natalie Portman, Marion Cotillard, Abbie Cornish, Carey Mulligan, Sienna Miller, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall and Olivia Wilde were tested/approached but Sandra finally fit the bill.

    Interesting!

  4. David, I agree the movie is very good, though I’m going to hold back on the great for the moment. I was also surprised at how well Sandra Bullock did. I’ve always thought she was fine in light comedy, but out of her depth in heavier things. Still she did a very good job here.

    I was, however, a little off put by George Clooney. I kind of cringed every time he cracked wise or told a dumb story. It was too much of the same from him. But that’s a minor complaint. It’s still a very good, entertaining movie.

    • Jason – glad to have you back, man! Yeah, Clooney WAS just being Clooney, but I thought it worked for the part.

      Did you see this in 3D?

      • I did not see this in 3D. I have a hard anti-3D position. Every time someone tells me I need to see something in 3D and I pay the extra money for it, I end up regretting it. It never adds anything for me.

        • Jason – you really should consider going against your gut here (though you’ve already seen the film). I am generally anti-3D (especially post conversion in comic book and horror movies), but I would rank this with Avatar and Life of Pi as one of those rare films where the 3D is not just a gimmick and ads a unique artistic level to the film. Gravity is probably the best use of 3D in the history of the medium – it’s all used to add depth to the visuals and give one the sense that we are up there in space with the characters. There’s none of the usual eye strain or lack of clarity or any “gotcha” moments – it’s flawless.

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