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Gravity (Cuarón, 2013)

     There is a temptation in filmmaking to create stories that reflect the current state of society. Conventional filmmakers just want to entertain the audience in a way they can understand while artistic types want to hold a mirror up to society and say, “See! This is what you’ve become!” This isn’t to say movies that provide a time capsule for film geeks to look back on are without merit. Movies like The Graduate, The Breakfast Club and The Social Network define their respective generations in different ways and provide a pretty good sense of American life and society. Other films strive to be timeless classics; though their filmic style may eventually become dated, their stories remain universal no matter when you sit down to watch them. Gravity falls into the latter category in such a way that’s rarely seen in modern moviemaking.
     Admittedly, it helps that Gravity is set in outer space. At the beginning of the film, the audience is dropped in the middle of outer space and introduced to two astronauts on opposite ends of their space careers: Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first mission in space while Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a more seasoned astronaut who intends on retiring after the current mission. Ryan and Matt are our only human glimpse into the world of Gravity as the astronauts finish repair work on the Hubble telescope. Their mission is soon interrupted when they receive word that a cluster of space debris is headed directly towards them. Ryan nervously tries to finish her repair work as Matt repeatedly commands her to abort the mission with increasing impatience. The peaceful stillness of space is brutally interrupted as debris comes hurdling towards our main characters, as well as the audience watching with 3D glasses.
     Ryan becomes a hyperventilating mess as her analytical routine is disturbed, leaving her panicked and unable to focus on getting back to safety. Matt attempts to bring her back but even he is left at the mercy of outer space and its forces. The vast, unpredictability of space becomes the primary antagonist of the film and provides for an infinitely more terrifying threat than any human ever could. Director Alfonso Cuarón lets his shots go on for minutes on end, which manages to simultaneously cause more tension and allow the scenes to play out in real time. Gravityis only 91 minutes long but Cuarón immerses you in the film so much that it feels like you’re on the brink of death with these characters with each passing minute.
     It’s virtually impossible not to feel for Ryan and Matt in what feels like a 99 percent chance of death situation. It’s to the film’s benefit that its characters are played by two of America’s biggest movie stars. Bullock and Clooney are not necessarily the best actors of their generation, but each of them has an undeniable every-person quality to them that easily allows people from all walks of life to latch on to their respective presences. They have their strengths and their weaknesses but they both possess a likability that gives extra weight to seeing them in such a precarious situation. Though Bullock in particular gives an Oscar-worthy performance in this film, the distinctive personalities of both Ryan and Matt are not what make the film great. Some could argue that the film doesn’t work if you don’t care whether they live or die, and while this may be true, it soon becomes clear that this is a story about the human spirit striving to live even when the threat of death would make it so easy to just give up.
Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in Gravity

     Simplicity in storytelling is often considered a flaw, especially in filmmaking, but Gravity’s simplicity actually serves to benefit the film. For every huge obstacle that the characters go up against, there is a primal through line of determination to live that gives the film a remarkable amount of pathos. We only learn a little bit about Ryan and Matt but it’s all we really need as an audience. Ryan eventually becomes the lead of the film and we recognize her learned adaptability in new situations as well as her inability to prevent things from going horribly wrong. She is like any one of us when presented with a new situation: we try to do as best we can even if we’re not always sure that what we’re doing will help us or make us safe. I’ve heard some critics complain that the script is the weakest part of the film but every scene feels important and worthy of being included.  The dialogue is sparse and sometimes not even necessary but I did not have any big problems with it.

     Though Bullock and Clooney are undoubtedly huge stars, the biggest, shiniest star in this film is Cuarón’s visuals. Space has not felt so unbearably lonely and terrifying since Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gravity takes some of the gradual, flightless shots of 2001 and uses them to its advantage but it still feels like its own movie. The film also manages to use 3D to its benefit, which is incredibly rare nowadays. The trick seems to be that the 3D technology is not overly distracting like in most blockbusters, which often use post-conversion and darken the screen so much that you can hardly see what’s going on. The imagery of Ryan, Matt and the various spacecraft pop out naturally against the blackness of space, giving the illusion that you are right there with them. Cuarón uses space well (both in the literal and artistic sense!), creating numerous shots that are destined to be iconic in the history of film. The very last scene of the film is such a beautifully rendered sequence that I hesitate to imagine any other film this year being able to top it.
     “Life in space is impossible,” a line of text reads at the very beginning of the film. It is a stark warning about the 90 minutes that will follow and mentally prepares you that the worst could happen at any moment. Yet perhaps more than anything else, Gravity represents the primal ability to try to live anyway against seemingly impossible odds.

Grade: A
MVP: Sandra Bullock

Awards Potential:

Best Picture
Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Best Lead Actress: Sandra Bullock
Best Supporting Actor: George Clooney
Best Art Direction
Best Cinematography
Best Editing
Best Original Score
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Visual Effects


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