“...this is easily one of the best and most memorable films of the year."

The Beauty, Harshness and Loneliness of Space

(101113) Thanks to the technological advances brought about by the advent of CGI technology and the like, things that would have once been impossible to pull off only a short time ago are now commonplace sights at the multiplex. The trouble is that since the filmmakers have too often chosen to sacrifice such elements as character and story in order to focus on such state-of-the-art miracles, most of these sights, as spectacular as they may be in theory, rarely register as anything more than eye candy that provides a momentary thrill or two but which fails to make any lasting impression on their audiences. "Gravity," the new film from Alfonso Cuaron, accomplishes any number of things in spectacular fashion but its most astonishing achievement may be the way that it restores a sense of genuine excitement and wonder to the movie going experience. Unfathomably complex from a technical standpoint and startlingly direct and pure in terms of emotional drama, this is easily one of the best and most memorable films of the year.

“Gravity” is a film that will be discussed for years to come. It redefines the use of visual effects, sound design, and cinematography to tell an ambitious story that reaches beyond planetary confines to explore life in space, and how the human survival instinct responds to an alien environment. Impressively large-scale yet intimately emotional, “Gravity” treads familiar ground in terms of an adventurous pile-on of catastrophe, but the details of the feature are extraordinary, unlike anything put on screen before. It’s an astronaut experience that delivers an exquisite you-are-there head rush, making it one of the most technically sophisticated pictures of the last decade. “Gravity” is not easily flushed from the system after a viewing.

On a space shuttle mission to repair parts of the Hubble Space Telescope, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is adjusting to her first mission, trying to concentrate on work while struggling with sickness issues. Overseeing the assignment is astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a confident veteran who regales his crew and mission control (voiced by Ed Harris) with reheated stories of earthbound revelry. When debris from a Russian satellite suddenly enters range, the team hurries to escape harm, only to find themselves right in the middle of the metal storm. Shredding the shuttle, wreckage separates Stone from Kowalski, leaving the newcomer floating away into deep space. Struggling to mount a rescue mission, Kowalski eventually reconnects to Stone, with the pair facing a true test of training as they float toward the International Space Station space station while their oxygen reserves are slowly depleted.

“Gravity” marks the return of director Alfonso Cuaron (who also co-scripts) to the screen, his first effort since 2006’s “Children of Men.” Cuaron trusts in a concentrated visual language, often more comfortable showing his characters in action than having them describe their concerns. Although it only features two actors for most of the movie, “Gravity” is a mammoth production that takes the audience high above Earth, observing the team carry on with their daily business of repair and banter, finding Stone immersed in satellite repair while Kowalski glides around the shuttle on a jet pack, amusing the crew with his raconteur ways, treating the mission as perfectly routine. The sensation of space, its stillness and silence (Cuaron plays with deafening sounds to trick the ear into submission), is immediately understood, while the camera swirls throughout the shuttle, picking up bits of business as it winds around the characters in seamless shots that marry technological excellence with storytelling economy, getting to know the lay of the land in a matter of minutes.

Space is treated with awe, with enormity, revealing its vast depth and power as disaster strikes, forcing Kowalski into rescue mode as Stone is kicked away from the shuttle, frantically trying to recall her training as air supplies are quickly exhausted. The opening disaster of “Gravity” is mind-blowing, studying sheer terror as the untested astronaut scrambles to collect herself, with Cuaron exploring Stone’s experience of helpless by slipping in and out of her helmet, exposing every last hyperventilated second of panic before Kowalski engineers a rescue attempt. It’s a harrowing sequence in its indefatigable suspense and touch of realism, making the viewer believe Clooney and Bullock are actually above the Earth, fighting for their lives. “Gravity” contains several of these moments, yet all the major set-pieces are unparalleled in their expert execution and nail-chewing tension, with the action eventually headed into the claustrophobic confines of a space station, where the American professionals are forced to pilot Russian equipment.

As huge as “Gravity” is, with seamless visual effects that fool the eye, the production is eager to bring the struggle down to a human scale, tracking Stone’s reflection on the death of her child, exposing a past event where she was challenged with hopelessness, motivating her to keep up the fight despite unrelenting setbacks. Bullock hasn’t been this natural in a long time, delivering a career-best performance as the overwhelmed astronaut. Vulnerable and crisply scattered, Bullock aids the tension masterfully, adding a dire sense of confusion that’s superbly undercut with irritation, keeping the character prickly as she grows frustrated with disaster after disaster. Clooney has the more traditional leadership role, but he’s aces in the part, adding welcome charm and authority to “Gravity,” while responsible for the film’s few flashes of humor (tiny bits to lighten the oppressive mood).

Scored with an ominous electro storm front by Steven Price and captured with cinematic innovation by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, “Gravity” is a sound and vision event that’s absolutely riveting. It brings space to the multiplex in an entirely fresh manner, making the feature a technical marvel to match its primitive but effective dramatic reach. There just isn’t anything like it in theaters right now, and probably won’t be for years to come.

"Gravity" is one of the very best films of the year--the kind of undeniably ambitious work that swings for the fences in virtually every scene and winds up connecting far more often than not. There are plenty of films these days that call themselves "epic" because they cost hundreds of millions of dollars and smear their visual effects across the screen like the frosting on a cheap cupcake but in terms of ambition, size and scope, this is the rare movie fully deserving of the appellation. This is not the kind of movie that one can properly experience while watching it on an iPad, a phone or on some junky multiplex screen the size of a postage stamp--it needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible and while such add-ons as 3D and IMAX usually offer viewers little more than additional charge to the ticket price, they are deployed so beautifully here that they are pretty much essential to its presentation. No matter how you see it, however, it is a certainty that it will not be drifting from your memory anytime soon.


Directed by:    Alfonso Cuarón
Written by:    Screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón
Starring:    Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Released:    10/04/13 (USA-wide)
Length:    91 minutes
Rating:    PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some
 disturbing images and brief strong language
Available On:    At press time the film was playing at local theatres

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