Movie Review: "Gravity"
Rating: PG-13 (for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images, and brief strong language)
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: October 4, 2013
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
Alfonso Cuarón, best known for the hit erotic comedy "Y tu mamá también" and the most experimental—and according to critics the most memorable—of the Harry Potter films, "The Prisoner of Azkaban," is back with the long-awaited release of "Gravity."
The film stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, on her first space shuttle mission, and George Clooney as senior astronaut Matt Kowalski. And that's it. Aside from the voice of Ed Harris in mission control, there are no other consequential characters. Then there is the mystery, majesty, and horror of endless, uninhabitable space—with the Earth and the sun shifting in the background, at once reminding the characters and the audience what the objective is and where the characters have come from. Soon it becomes clear these two characters are in the throes of one of the most unforgiving and visually stunning villains in recent cinematic history, the all-encompassing maw of outer space.
To develop the complexity of such a faceless antagonist and to make the audience believe in its power and unrelenting nature, Cuarón depends on the latest developments in computer-generated imagery (CGI), his longtime collaborator and cinematographer, the always-bold Emmanuel Lubezki, and his now trademark technique of the long shot, so often and deftly used in this film it makes Hitchcock seem a shy practitioner of the technique.
As with any disaster movie, the plot of "Gravity" is simple and direct. Catastrophe strikes soon, suddenly, and devastatingly, and the survivors are left to deal with the consequences. The debris from an exploded Russian satellite strikes the American shuttle, making it unusable and killing everyone on board except Stone and Kowalski. The two characters prepare for the aftershocks of such a catastrophe. Kowalski informs Stone that the satellite debris will grow like a snowball destroying other things in its path, gathering mass and force as it orbits the earth for a return appearance in approximately ninety minutes. Perhaps this is Cuarón's wink at the audience that his film is not really about the action, ninety minutes being almost exactly the length of his film. He is after bigger cinematic fish here.
Part of this strategy seems obvious in taking two of the biggest stars in the film world, covering them up in thick astronaut gear, giving them a minimalist script to work with, and for the sake of authenticity, stripping them of their signature gestures and physical presences and making their world-famous faces through the astronaut headgear seem often unrecognizable. This works much better with Bullock's Stone than with Clooney's Kowalski, who is the noble, optimistic, wise-cracking hero type who will be very familiar to fans of the actor. Bullock, however, not only submits to the ground rules of such inventive character development, but she is transformed by it.
This is good, because "Gravity" is as much her film as "Castaway" was Tom Hanks's. And it is through Bullock's transformative performance that the purpose of Cuarón's storytelling strategy becomes obvious. He wants the audience not only to empathize with the fate of these poor souls but also, by stripping away the artifice of more traditional three-act character development and by setting his sci-fi film in the mysterious uninhabitable realm of our own very real world, he invites the audience to inhabit the horror of the situation with the characters. It is not that the script fails to deliver on the more traditional aspects of its plot.
The characters are racing against the clock for a goal that has been set as a countdown to the end of the movie; tension partly comes from the obstacles they face along the way and the will they can muster to survive. The cable that tethers them together very soon creates the visual impression that they are not two characters but a single entity with a single-minded purpose, which is crucial to accepting some of the more hackneyed twists in the plot. During production, Cuarón said that he grew frustrated because, although he and his team thought they had accomplished the authenticity of how these characters would exist in such a micro-gravity environment, how their bodies would move, and how they and the audience would perceive the movement of other objects—even something as extreme as satellite debris hurtling against a shuttle—the faces of the actors seemed off. The force of Earth's gravity was evident "in their faces, their eyes, their souls." He would not rest until this most common force, one that a comic actress such as Bullock has used to hilarious effect in more earth-bound films, was stripped from even the eyes of the actors. And ironically, this perseverance, this limitation, created space for what may be Bullock's most transforming performance yet.