The hype is real. Though cinema has been around for over a century, there has never been a motion picture like ‘Gravity’. I wouldn’t exactly call it a perfect film; but it’s a perfect filmgoing experience, which is equally satisfying.
Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist onboard a space shuttle to repair the Hubble Telescope. Out on a spacewalk to do that work, Ryan must not only contend with motion sickness due to lack of gravity but also the never-ending yammering of Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who’s on his last mission. But because this is a movie, the fact that he is on his last mission means that something bad will happen – and does it ever. Soon, all space hells breaks loose in the form of debris from a destroyed Russian satellite. Before they can get inside, the debris destroys the spacecraft and cuts off communication back to Earth.
The movie had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is where I was hoping to see it but tickets were off-sale almost instantly. I thought about waiting in the Rush line on the day of the premiere but took note of the fact that it would open in theatres in October; so, I sought out less commercial pictures (that did not have a distributor or a North American release date). In retrospect, I wish I had waited in the Rush line on the day of the premiere if only to get some insight into the filmmaking process behind this. What I do know (based on what I’ve heard from TIFF-goers): Cuarón said the movie took 4.5 years to make (a miscalculation given that the initial forecast was that this would be a one-year project). Mr. Cuarón was also pleased by the questions relating to the characters and themes as opposed to the technical questions – he saw the technical elements as a backdrop but wanted the thematic elements to bare more weight. His most difficult technical challenge was “gravity” – both the film and being bounded by gravity as the film takes place in micro-gravity. How does one make this happen? Once the theoretical constructs/figures were realized, how do the actors perform in these conditions? Cuarón confessed the challenge was more for those around him rather than himself – he said his job was easy.
I was blown away by ‘Gravity’. This is a gorgeous film and it does just about everything right in both big and small ways. From a technical standpoint, it’s astonishingly beautiful and intimately detailed; but, it is also precise in tone and a masterwork of controlled acting. The movie opens with a 13-minute tracking shot which is amongst the longest in Hollywood history and certainly the first of that length in 3-D. There is a speck in the distance surrounded by the infinite blackness which grows closer and closer until we realize that we’re looking at actual people. We get the sensation that we are actually watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in space – it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen and as I was watching the movie I couldn’t help but wonder “How did Alfonso Cuarón (or his technological wizard) do that?”
When the collision in the movie takes place, the camera moves so fluidly, gliding through the debris (and technical conventions of filmmaking) before closing in on Ryan – going right through the visor on her helmet to demonstrate the stark terror on her face. What a thrilling experience this was – I was tense the entire time.
The bravura opening makes the camera the star of the picture. But, we need to talk about Sandra Bullock – she won an Academy Award four years ago for her work in the ‘The Blind Side’ and she will be nominated again for her work here. For a long period of time, this is a one-person show and the movie relies on Bullock’s performance – she is incredible. Her character is a scientist, not an astronaut (though she was trained as one); she is in the most stressful situation anyone can possibly imagine. But, my goodness, what an impact she leaves simply through breathing, her voice modulation and her facial expressions. She conveys her character’s history, arc, and “battle of will and can’t” in the most subtlest of ways in the most extraordinary of circumstances. This is the performance of Ms.Bullock’s career; perfectly illustrating the impact of a catastrophe on the human psyche. George Clooney (as always) is charming and charismatic – but these traits aren’t used for character exposition here. His appealing character qualities help calm Bullock’s petrified character. This isn’t just Danny Ocean floating in space ready with the perfect line for any situation. The performers’ faces and voices bear the burden of carrying all of the meaning.
We do learn a lot about these characters – it is essentially just the two of them (unless you factor in the voice speaking into their ears – Ed Harris; an ‘Apollo 13’ nod there). They have to learn about each other in a situation where every second counts – they’re tethered together, cut off from the Earth, and running low on oxygen. These two play off each other brilliantly.
Some idiots have complained to me about the movie’s believability and some incorrect science. This is a science-fiction movie. We don’t go into a movie like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ looking for realism. To quote a tweet from @peterhowellfilm “It’s a backwards compliment to the believability of #Gravity, a fictional space drama, that so many people are debating the science of it.” I noticed an “error” early on in the film – the proximity of the international space station relative to the Hubble Space Telescope; I believe they are actually in different orbits – knowing this, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment in the slightest. This could be why I’ve chosen to describe Gravity as an imperfect movie but a perfect moviegoing experience. Is there even such a thing as a perfect movie?
‘Gravity’ was the top-grossing movie at the box office last weekend and I suspect it will have many repeat viewings. I’ve expressed my loathing for 3-D in many previous reviews, but I strongly recommend that this movie be seen in IMAX 3-D; it is as mesmerizing an experience as you can ever hope for in this format. In fact, the 3-D is essential to the storytelling – this isn’t a gimmick to charge a premium for an inferior experience. Nothing in the movie — whether it be human bodies or space stations maintains a state of rest either on a vertical or horizontal plane. The 3-D renders the enormity of outer space – if a character recedes, they appear to be falling into a void. If someone approached me with $13.50 in their hand and asked “What movie should I see today?”, I would reach my pocket for $6.00, give it to the person and say “Go see Gravity in IMAX 3-D. You’re welcome.”
The budget for ‘Gravity’ was $100 million – this is less than half the budget for many of 2013’s big summer blockbusters. With $100 million, Mr.Cuarón was able to show us (ahem, Hollywood, take note) what wondrous things cinema is capable of. Cinema is still a young art form and I think the possibilities of film are unbounded; a film like ‘Gravity’ makes me believe that. This past summer, I may have been a little more cynical – for the most part, I saw expensively made pictures featuring great explosions but little heart or humanity. The “thinking man’s blockbuster” is a rarity – I hope ‘Gravity’ sparks this new genre.
Note: Having been to the Toronto International Film Festival this year, I was lucky enough to see many of the big Oscar contenders; based on the universal critical acclaim that ‘Gravity’ has received, many have offered me their prediction saying that this is the movie that will win the Best Picture Oscar. I still think it will go to ’12 Years A Slave’ (which was a great movie for very different reasons). Only time will tell….QED