So I’m a little late to the party on this one. Sheepishly, I’ll admit that one of the main motivations for writing this review and seeing the movie in the first place is all the Oscar buzz surrounding Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi adventure. After months of feet-dragging and ignoring the movie, I finally saw it last night, ignoring my conscience’s desperate call that I get some real-world-work done, because I couldn’t live with myself if I failed to see it before the Oscars. For the last five months, the theater across the street from my apartment has featured it in 2D and 3D. It seems like the film will never leave theaters and only the arrival of The Lego Movie pushed it out of the 3D spot at my neighborhood theater. Maybe the staying power of the film factored into my earlier avoidance. My friends have raved on and on about the movie since October but something about it didn’t seem appealing. We’ve seen bad movies with an actor in one spot, talking to themselves for 90 minutes with mixed success (Phonebooth, Open Water). Cinema or Cine-Meh?‘s review starts out saying that “If you haven’t seen it, you probably think Sandra Bullock spirals around in space for the full 90 minutes. You’d be terribly wrong.” To an embarrassing degree of accuracy, this is exactly what I thought this movie would be about. I didn’t think I could engage with a movie like that and didn’t want to part ways with my precious $8 for 90 minutes of spinning.
But Logan at Cinema or Cine-Meh was spot-on. My expectations going into the film were completely misjudged. Because of this, Gravity, for me, is the most surprising film of 2013. The movie was fantastic in a way that took me off guard. I’ve come to realize over the years that movies with a small group of strong actors (here it is basically George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, both of whom deliver superb performances), struggling in a small environment are infinitely more entertaining than the movies with huge casts working over long timelines. I think this is part of the reason I was/am hesitant to embrace 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street as much as they probably deserve. Both of those movies deal in longer plot lines with many more invested characters, which can make it hard for me to access and appreciate their stories. I like film noirs dealing with one central tough guy, working to crack a case of expanding complexity. I go for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, focusing on Robert De Niro’s troubled characters. That’s also the reason I’m looking forward to Le Week-End, with two good actors and their relationship over a short timeline. Then again, I love American Hustle and Pulp Fiction which have large casts and complicated relationships. So maybe I don’t know what I want. But Gravity hit all the right notes for me, even if I don’t know what notes I usually appreciate. Just a few steps out of the theater my friend gasped “that was stressful,” and I realized I spent the previous hour and a half contorted into unnatural positions and clenching my teeth as Bullock jumped from one shard of space debris to another. I had to whisper a few quiet apologies to the poor old man sitting in front of me after I kicked the back of his chair after Bullock missed a foothold or slammed into the side of a satellite.
What stands out the most, and what will probably be remembered for some time, are the striking visuals playing out across the screen. For the first time maybe ever, I wished I had upgraded my ticket from my small, cramped 2D theater to an IMAX or 3D ticket. Still, I could have watched the movie for hours just for the wide shots of the planet’s surface with images of a lit nighttime Italian peninsula or scattered archipelagos dotted throughout the ocean (I’m about 90% sure I don’t know what an archipelago is but I like the way it sounds and I’m fairly sure it has to do with water). The shots are long and without cuts, which actually add more to the tension. For 20-30 seconds at a time you see Bullock float and spin, uninterrupted by breaks in the visual or other editing, and you see her plunge into the dark screen, deeper into space, and you realize the depths of her increasing isolation and how desperate her situation becomes. The hip-hop montages Darren Aronofsky uses to drive action and anxiety in Requiem for a Dream are the counter-point to Cuaron’s deliberately long, winding shots. In some ways the movie plays out like a Western in that both a Western and Gravity spend a great deal of time appreciating the landscape and setting in which their characters live, often to emphasize the brutality and unforgiving nature of the otherwise beautiful locations.
But we also get incredibly tight shots, with debris shooting in every direction and watch Bullock and Clooney fight to stay alive. One specific early sequence allows us to slowly float towards a panting and exasperated Bullock, moving closer and closer, her face filling up more and more of the screen until we move through her helmet facemask and see a tight shot of the top half of her face, eyes popped open and sweat running down her temple. Then the camera slowly turns so we see out of her mask and are given her point of view and realize how the immensity of space can be terrifyingly claustrophobic.
The only place where the film falls a little flat for me are in some of the longer monologue sequences with Sandra Bullock. While her performance is very strong, especially since she is essentially acting against nothing and likely spent the majority of shooting on green screens making for a difficult performance, there are times where silence would have been more appropriate than her quiet one-liners. The first sequences of the movie (the non-chaotic ones) are spent setting her up as a somewhat cold, intense professional, balancing the talkative and more personable George Clooney. Later, when the chaos ensues, she does enough physical acting and gives an emotional performance to the point that some of her lines seemed forced, as if the writers added lines where they thought speaking was needed instead of where the character may have spontaneously cut into the silence. Of course, if I was stranded in space, struggling to survive, I would probably babble and cry like a 9 year old but it just didn’t seem to fit the character we had come to briefly know at the beginning. I also had a minor problem with how quickly she reaches an epiphany late in the movie. I won’t expand on the details so as not to spoil the movie, but the change seemed too drastic and sudden and was somewhat jarring. Though the character development was needed for the movie’s situation and context, I felt like it could have been hinted to a little more throughout the first acts of the movie. Maybe I was too busy staring at the clouds on the planet and watching George Clooney zip around the shuttle at the beginning of the movie and not paying enough attention to the fleshing out of Bullock’s character.
Rating: 10/10. The movie was much more Castaway than Phone Booth and combined equal parts beautiful cinematography with strong acting. Despite what I said above, Sandra Bullock gives an amazing performance and my problem is more with the writing than her acting. This is actually one of my favorite of her performances. Of all the films released in 2013, this is likely the one I will watch and rewatch in the years to come, if only to watch George fly around in his jetpack suit and to see the sun rise over the edge of the planet.
While it may sound presumptuous or naive, I imagined my reaction to Gravity‘s cinematography and imagery may be similar to how contemporary viewers reacted to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly it has been a long time since I personally saw a movie of such visual power (granted I did see Avatar on VHS, while it was still playing in 3D theaters). At tonight’s Academy Awards, Gravity will likely play the role that Inception played in the 2011 awards in that if it doesn’t win any of the major awards (Best Picture, Best Director, or the acting categories), it will likely clean house in the technical categories like Inception which collected four awards, tying The King’s Speech (the Best Picture winner) with the evening’s most awards. Cuaron’s Best Director bid is gathering steam and appears to be the film’s best shot at winning one of the evening’s big honors.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Where to see it: In theaters. Definitely. Preferably in 3D or IMAX. The movie is visually amazing and the trailer alone shows more amazing visual moments than many movies squeeze out in 2 hours.
Thanks for reading!