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Slipping the surly bonds. And then…”Gravity”

October 5, 2013

gravity

It’s a bit ironic that now, a few months after the close of a summer season chock-a-block with bloated, over-budgeted, lumbering blockbuster offerings, the most teeth-grindingly thrilling and suspenseful film of the year would feature action sequences that don’t involve space battles, cities being destroyed, or derailed steam locomotives, but rather things like grabbing things. And breathing. Ironic, but not surprising. It’s no secret that Hollywood has long felt that budget=profit. Quality seldom factors in. With his latest film, Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron brings craftsmanship back to the screen, and in the process creates an edge-of-your-seat thriller that does nothing less than rewrite the language of cinema.

In Gravity, two astronauts get stuck in space. Yep, that’s the plot. Hey, thanks Alfonso! Nice and easy to encapsulate when I explain it to my parents. Anyway, yeah, the movie begins midway through a shuttle mission to repair a messed-up motherboard on the Hubble telescope. Responsible for the repairs is novice astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), whose equally preoccupied with keeping her lunch down in zero-g as the telescope. Zipping around her like an improbably-handsome Commando Cody is Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut on his last mission before retirement.

Within a few scenes (gorgeously shot and composed scenes, I should say), Cuaron perfectly establishes these characters. Kowalski has Clooney’s easy charm as he bullshits with Mission Control (an unseen Ed Harris) and scoots around outer space, while Stone is more tightly-wound and introverted—buttoned up by her own personality and the natural fear of walking in space for the first time.

After this extremely economical setup, Cuaron sets the plot in motion, as a missile strike on a Russian spy satellite creates a chain reaction of destruction that sends a deadly debris cloud hurtling at the space shuttle. Within moments and in eerie silence, Stone and Kowalski are torn form their relative safety and sent adrift as their shuttle is irrecoverably damaged and the crew killed.

Alone and adrift, Kowalski and Stone must make their way to the International Space Station where a glimmer of hope resides in the form an escape module they can use to get back to Earth. Suffice it to say, the trip isn’t as easy as all that. Battling them every inch of the way is, not gravity, but unforgiving physics (wait, is gravity a part of physics? I was a humanities major). Every movement propels them without resistance, and without anything solid with which to gain purchase, something mere inches out of grasp might as well be on another continent.

It’s here that Cuaron and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (a frequent collaborator with Terrence Malick), present us with a cinematic experience unlike any in recent memory, and perhaps ever. By setting the action in weightlessness of space, they eliminate the comforting orientation of X and Y axis, foregrounds and backgrounds. Instead, through some truly genius camerawork, they create a genuinely three-dimensional space for the action to take place. Moreso than any movie that has come before it this movie demands to be seen in 3D.

Gravity is light on plot and characterization, but it works by playing to the stars’ strengths as actors. Clooney has always had a quiet charisma that simply walks away with the screen as if it was always his to take. He doesn’t need to over-emote to build any tension—just clip his words a little bit. And Bullock has always been the most convincing guys-gal in movies since…um, Peppermint Patty? Here, she’s unafraid to close herself off for most of the film and bury her trademark effervescence behind a curtain of mournfulness, allowing it to break only once, when her tears float away.

Sure, you can nitpick why there are so many space stations in orbit all of a sudden or the fact that the ISS and the Hubble are in two very different orbits (as a New York Times article points out, getting form one to the other would be like swimming from the Caribbean to London), but otherwise the movie maintains a strong fidelity to the facts of space travel. And that’s especially poignant now, as poor, beleaguered, defunded NASA has shut its doors because 29 Republican congressmen don’t want poor people to have medical care (because that’s the way our country works now, apparently). The days when we were awed by space travel are long past, but, as Gravity makes clear, the courage it takes to do that job is just as awesome today as it was when John Glenn first left gravity behind.

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