Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gravity (2013), in 3D – Review

Review: Gravity is a remarkable cinematic experience, treating the audience to a thrilling journey of human perseverance and striking beauty. The film is about the mission of the Space Shuttle Explorer, tasked with installing new equipment on the Hubble Space Telescope. However, the mission goes awry when the Russians accidently launch a missile into Space destroying one of their communication satellites sending debris into orbit around Earth causing a catastrophic chain-reaction. The debris, moving at incredibly high speeds, is on a collision course with Explorer, having already destroyed multiple satellites (creating even more debris). The crew of Explorer is not able to act fast enough and is caught in the cloud of piercing debris leaving two members of the crew adrift in Space, Mission Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone and veteran astronaut Mission Commander Matt Kowalski. Now, Stone and Kowalski must do everything they can to survive.

Writer-director Alfonso Cuaron’s story is a simple one (leaving behind almost everything sci-fi films are known for). The film is at its heart about the triumphant will of the human spirit to persevere against all odds. And structurally, the narrative is built on the characters facing mounting obstacles in a very classical sense (with a clear three-act structure). Cuaron does a fantastic job managing the pacing and tone. He keeps the audience in a tight suspenseful grip, never letting the tension fully dissipate, but allowing the audience to catch their breath (which is essential when making a great thriller) and take in the sheer brilliance of the stunning visuals. The experience is intense, but ultimately rewarding.

Cuaron keeps the audience intimately attached to the characters (particularly Stone, who is the lead), which creates a bond between the audience and the characters (as to some extent they both go through the ordeal of being alone in Space, seemingly without hope, together). A lot of the film sees Cuaron’s camera very close to Stone’s face or from her perspective. And, if the camera is away from her, the sound design emphasizes her breathing. The audience is always in touch with her emotions (whether she is scared, excited, nervous, etc.). Cuaron is so successful in his ability to connect the audience to Stone that she becomes a vessel for each audience member. The struggle that she engages in, the audience also engages in – her emotions become the audience’s emotions.

The magnificent visuals (created digitally to look as photo-realistic as possible) also do a lot to bring the audience into the film. The vastness of Space is eerie and bleak, while the lush and colorful Earth seems comforting. Space is unforgiving and impossible to sustain life in (as stated in the opening moments of the film), and yet as comforting as Earth may appear it feels so far away, only escalating the terrifying reality that these characters are alone. Additionally, everything feels and looks very real in the environment, which is a credit to Cuaron and his skilled team of technicians. Realistic or not in reality, the film appears to be and feels completely honest in its portrayal of every aspect. The emotional journey of the characters pulls the audience into the narrative, but the stunning visuals set the stage wonderfully.

The visuals are also notable in regards to the use of 3D technology in the film. The amazing depth that it adds is beguiling (and a necessary component to feel the full experience). Avatar reintroduced the cinema world to what 3D, when done well, could offer as a cinematic event experience. But, since Avatar’s release at the end of 2009, there have only been two films that use 3D justifiably (amidst the absolute plethora of 3D releases and rereleases): Life of Pi and Gravity. This film sets a new standard for the medium (in a sense shamming everything that has come before it, aside from Life of Pi – though, Gravity is in completely different category of excellence). The 3D in Gravity is so much better than anything audiences have seen before that it is staggering. Cuaron (who is very critical of 3D’s use in film) spent years in post-production refining the look of this film (and the 3D) until it was perfect – much to the benefit of the audience. I am not a fan of 3D. It almost always looks terrible and actually takes away from the film in almost all cases, but like Avatar and Life of Pi I would implore those wishing to see Gravity to see it in 3D – it is just a transcendent experience unlike any other in cinema this year.

The theme of rebirth is heavily featured throughout the narrative. There is a scene in particular in which Stone resembles a fetus floating in a womb (when she gets to the International Space Station and takes off her Space suit). Throughout, Stone is tested with obstacle after obstacle, each more challenging and mentally and emotionally demanding. Cuaron makes it clear in the first act that she is a novice in Space. Thus, in order to survive, alone, she must come to terms with her own fear and find within herself the will to live and let go of her dread. In a sense, she must be reborn. Stone lost her daughter in a freak accident and seems to have not fully come to terms with that loss, leaving her sort of floating through life without a true will to stubbornly keep going in spite of the hardships she has faced. Thus, for Stone to overcome her predicament she must find her internal fight. This is something very relatable to us all – to face tragedy and find a way to keep moving forward. Stone’s journey in some ways ultimately becomes about her acceptance of her daughter’s death more so than her struggle to survive. She must want to survive and to do that, again, she must let go of what is holding her back. This is very powerful emotionally and thematically, as it taps into some very basic and human: the want/need to be alive.

In many ways Gravity is ‘pure cinema’ in that it offers a simple story set in an extraordinary environment that completely engages and captivates its audience. The film provides gripping intense suspense, deeply resonating emotional character drama, and even lighter moments of effective brevity. Cuaron has made a film with everything narratively, but Gravity will probably be remembered for its devastatingly spectacular visuals. They are unlike anything audiences have seen in cinema – a new crowning achievement.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Alfonso Cuaron has now made seven feature films. With each film, he exhibits both an innate ability to capture emotional truth and brilliantly design his narratives, particularly from a directing standpoint. His films are always highly compelling to watch artistically – his use of long-take shots is legendary (Gravity opens with a shot that is almost thirteen minutes long before the first edit – essentially the whole first act). He is among cinema’s greatest active auteurs (and personally, I love his films Love in the Time of Hysteria, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, and now Gravity).

Composer Steven Price’s score is captivating. It does not just serve the role of accompaniment to the drama on screen; rather it engages the audience on an emotional level as well. It heightens the panic and fear, enraptures the film’s beauty, and transports the viewer’s imagination. Here is a sampling. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is one of Cuaron’s most fruitful collaborators. They have known each other since childhood and have made six films together. On Gravity, Lubezki faced an incredible challenge: lighting the actors’ faces to match an environment that was created entirely digitally. Lubezki uses what he calls an LED box (which was invented for the film) to light the actors’ to match the VFX scenery. His work looks phenomenal and is even more impressive given the immense degree of difficulty (plus the number of long-takes in the film only amplified the degree of difficulty). Lubezki again separates himself as one of cinema’s most talented D.P.s with his work on the film. It is staggeringly good (here is an interesting interview with Lubezki regarding his work on the film). Andy Nicholson is relatively new to production design, but comes from a background of doing fantastic work as an art director. On Gravity, his design work is wonderfully beautiful (with credit also going to Lubezki, Cuaron, and VFX supervisor Tim Webber) as well as very realistic. As stunning as the film looks (the shots of Earth and the rising sun are breathtaking), an essential component to creating a fully immersive experience was creating a world that looked as authentic as possible, and this is where Nicholson’s work truly shines. The audience never questions whether the characters are really in Space (intuitively knowing that the actors are not), and that is a remarkable accomplishment.

Gravity exists chiefly as a consuming thriller and momentous visual experience, but underneath it is in many ways a character drama built on excellent performances. In a fun nod to Apollo 13, Ed Harris features in a small voice role as Mission Control. George Clooney is very good as Matt Kowalski, playing the astronaut as being very confident (a seasoned veteran) and yet still very human. His charm and charisma not only soothes Stone but also the audience in what could be (and still is) a very traumatic moment (Explorer being overrun by debris sending Stone tumbling into oblivion). Sandra Bullock gives the performance of her career as Dr. Ryan Stone (yes, it completely overshadows the caricature that somehow won her an Oscar). Bullock gives a very physical performance, and one that must have been very demanding (with the aid of puppeteers – who also did the stage production of War Horse). For large portions of the film, Bullock must convey everything just with her eyes, face, voice, and breathing and she is utterly enthralling throughout. Her emotional journey becomes the audience’s journey as well, and that could only be accomplished by her brilliant work.

Summary & score: As a film about the fascination and/or terror of Space, Gravity ascends to the same heights as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien in terms of creating pure astonishment and dread. But as a visually jarring experience about letting go and finding a way, against all odds, to persevere, the film is simply wondrous (maybe even overwhelmingly so). 10/10

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