THEATRICAL REVIEW: Gravity
Produced by: Alfonso Cuarón, David Heyman
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Edited by: Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger
Cinematography by: Emmanuel Lubezki
Music by: Steven Price
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris, Orto Ignatiussen, Paul Sharma, Amy Warren, Basher Savage
I actually got around to seeing this on its opening weekend, but due to the film releasing in October, I never got around to reviewing it because I was so focused on doing Halloween-themed movies. Just this past weekend, however, I decided to go see it again while I still had the chance to see it on the big screen, thanks to some free passes I had received from my birthday – this time in 3D. It also presented the perfect opportunity to reflect on the film again and write a review with a more “fresh from the theatres” perspective, especially now that I had also now seen it in two different formats (once on a massive screen with Dolby Atmos sound system, and then on a smaller screen in 3D).
A passion project for Alfonso Cuarón and his son, Jonás, the film has been in some stage of development for the better part of the past three or more years, originally being passed up on by Universal, and going through several notable lead actresses in the part – notably, Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, and, very nearly, Natalie Portman. In contrast to all those names, perhaps the film’s final star, Sandra Bullock, seems like even more of an oddball choice, the actress being far more well known for her roles in romantic comedies and melodramas. Not even her early role in The Net really convinced anyone that Bullock could pull off the role of a serious scientist and astronaut. (Though, more realistically, it’s likely that silly movie convinced them she couldn’t.) Even after the film’s release and reviews came in, I still saw several people online (hardly a definitive sample, I realize) actually stating they were boycotting the film because they didn’t see how Bullock could actually play such a part based on her past work.
Not only that, I actually heard from several people in my own life, prior to the film’s release who had seen the trailer, who were, at best, skeptical of how good the film would turn out. One person, who saw the trailer prior to Star Trek Into Darkness, described it as “rubbish.” Another just burst out laughing and said, rather bluntly, “That movie looks fucking stupid! Pardon my language.” The reaction to this film, prior to and up through the film’s release had me worried that another promising, original sci-fi film like Pacific Rim was going to falter at the box office, encouraging studios to shy away from such ambitious projects. This paranoia continued even as I watched the film. For some reason, even if it wasn’t very good, I really, really wanted this movie to succeed, if only because I wanted more films where sci-fi was used as a catalyst for good storytelling and character work (think recent films like Sunshine, Moon, District 9, Source Code…) than as a mere gimmick and setting (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, either).
Lucky me, though, I had my enthusiasm vindicated in a big way. (It never doesn’t feel good to win one with these subjective battles.) Gravity would not only go on to be a massive critical hit, it was also a hit with audiences, topping the American box office for three weeks (ousted only by the easy appeal of the latest Jackass film) and taking in almost $200 million in that time. Heck, it even got praise from NASA astronauts, who admired its adherence to realism, despite some liberties being taken. As I said before, some stubborn people continued to disparage the film, including the individual who called the movie “fucking stupid” reluctantly admitting, “It wasn’t as bad as I expected,” albeit followed by a stubborn, “I still don’t think it was as great as you say, though.”
Screw that, though. The success of the film is completely justified. Gravity is a magnificent marriage of incredible visual spectacle, astounding sound design, genuinely affecting storytelling, and stellar acting from the film’s lead, Sandra Bullock, and the usual charming presence of her only on-screen costar, George Clooney. (All other credited actors, including Ed Harris, appear only in voice through sparse radio chatter.)
The threadbare plotting follows a pair of astronauts who are unexpectedly caught in the rush of debris from a missile strike on a satellite while performing upgrades and repairs on the Hubble telescope. A chain reaction of destruction begins and pummels their space shuttle while also detaching Dr. Ryan Stone from her perch outside and sending her hurtling into the void of space. Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut, retrieves the rookie as she continues to spin out of control, however, and the two set out to make their way to safety aboard the International Space Station in the distance. As the debris continues to orbit the planet and grows along its path, however, the two astronauts – cut off from home, mission control, and all other living beings – struggle to stay alive against the odds, with Ryan in particular made to face a past trauma that has pushed her so far as to seek the kind of isolation that only space can offer.
Gravity is pretty much a near perfect blending of both realistic sci-fi, character drama, and special effects thrills. The plot may be threadbare, but it’s the story that allows the film to connect with audiences on a personal level and explore the characters better. Dr. Stone’s personal journey in particular comes to the forefront, despite the remarkable circumstances that bring it to light, and the film suddenly becomes more relatable and familiar to anyone who has struggled in the wake of tragedy. It’s a familiar story, to be sure, but that can be said of any film. The key is the execution, and, for Gravity its presentation is nothing short of magnificent.
As previously noted, I first saw the film in 2D, but on my local theatre’s immense screen accompanied by their recent addition of a pretty kick-ass Dolby Atmos sound system. While I think that the theatre showing the movie in 3D had their projector running way too dimly, I can honestly say that the 3D, despite being a post-conversion (which is no longer nearly as bad an omen as it once was), does add something more to the film. 3D or not, though, this film is a visual marvel, though, I have to say, if you do happen to have a chance to go see it with the Dolby Atmos sound system (with a whopping 64 speakers going all around you), I can honestly say that that is the one to see if you have to make the choice. (Though IMAX is also an option, but, for some reason, my local IMAX is still for some reason playing just Elysium.) Gravity, as I keep repeating, truly has some brilliant sound design, most notably in its opening 20 or so minutes, where the ballet-like camerawork also shows off its malleability with regards to perspective and angles – not to mention Cuarón’s affection for very long, seamless periods between cuts. The combined use of the arresting musical score by Steven Price and the clever positioning signifiers in the sound design in even the quiet of space will likely give you a new appreciation for this most often forgotten aspect of filmmaking, however. It also really made me wish I had a home theatre…
Visual effects are similarly astounding, offering some truly beautiful views of the earth from space. I’ve heard some people voice how the film seems to vilify the idea of space exploration, given the whole space-as-isolation theme, but that never occurred to me at all, and the Cuaróns are careful to reinforce the idea that there really is beauty and significance in space. Whereas Dr. Stone may be using it as a means of escaping life on Earth, Lt. Kowalski clearly maintains his enthusiasm, despite the dire circumstances, and this appreciation is present in the visuals. But it’s also respectful of the dangers of space, and the realism of the effects result in both chaotic and quiet beauty and wonderment, much of which you wouldn’t even notice given the often mundane nature of the things being rendered, thanks to the film being a product of the filmmakers’ attention to detail in the pre-visualization – basically, everything but the actors is often computer rendered due to the amount of hard work that was put into what you could essentially call a working draft of the film, to the point where some would consider this film a hybrid of live action and animation. And it’s no wonder the film resonated for those who were even looking for just a regular action film – the thrills and spectacle on screen are some of the most effectively breathtaking I’ve ever seen.
And then there are the performances. Particularly that of Sandra Bullock. George Clooney is his usual charming self, and that’s really the best and worst I can say about that (which is not a detriment, as I pretty much always like Clooney, even when he’s forced to be self-deprecating), but Sandra Bullock faced an uphill battle with the decision to cast her, and I’m more than happy to say that all the naysayers can just shut up now. I can’t really say I’ve ever been a massive fan of hers, but I’ve never disliked the actress, either. Though I understand the place where people are coming from, much in the same way I understand why people might consider Ben Affleck a horrible choice for Batman, I can honestly say that if anyone ever doubts an unusual casting decision again, let Gravity be pointed out as joining the ranks of The Truman Show and The Dark Knight as an example of expectations regarding unusual casting decisions being shattered.
Sandra possibly gives one of the best performances of her career here as Dr. Ryan Stone, a reserved, damaged woman who doesn’t so much put on a mask for everyone as much as she buries all emotion until nothing but stern, clinical professionalism is able to be seen. As the film goes on, she’s forced to face not just fear in relation to her current situation, but also examine her reasons for even fighting to live. The role requires subtlety from Bullock, who is I guess more well known for being either the bubbly romantic leads in all those romantic comedies or, to the more knowledgeable, the steely tough woman seen in films like The Blind Side and Crash. Bullock gets to shed both those images here and show that she has greater depth as an actor, as Dr. Stone learns from her current circumstances and comes to terms with an incredibly painful past. There’s a moment in an escape pod cockpit that would’ve been one of the bigger emotional gut punches in film this year if it weren’t for 12 Years a Slave. Like the lead actor in that film, Chiwetel Ejiofor, however, expect Sandra Bullock to lead the charge for her respective acting category when it comes time for all the various upcoming awards ceremonies.
I’d like to think that my enthusiasm for this film isn’t just informed by an egotistical “I told you so!” attitude on my part – I still don’t have the consensus from the guy who called the film “rubbish,” after all – but I’m so sincerely happy that my expectations for greatness were met here, and I couldn’t be happier that Cuarón’s first directing gig in 7 years managed to earn such justified positive attention, too. While I’m more than happy to have superhero films and other well-made blockbusters fulfill my general entertainment needs, and we really do need talented visionary filmmakers, both newcomers and non-household-name veterans alike, to go out there and be able to take chances without fear of alienating audiences and losing their studios money. Risks need to be taken, and obviously not everything will be a massive success, but if studios ever become wary of greenlighting risky passion projects like this or the criminally unsuccessful Pacific Rim, not only will we miss out on some potentially spectacular works of art, where will we also find the people who will become the next Steven Spielbergs and Christopher Nolans to helm even the big blockbusters?
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 5 / 5