04 October 2013

IRRESISTIBLE FORCE

The long-in-development, long-delayed seventh film by director Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity, already had a massive amount of hype to live up to even before it opened to just silly good reviews out of the Venice film festival, and of course it doesn't live up to it. It comes, however, about as close to living up to it as a movie possibly could: not nearly as succulent and all-encompassing in its awesomeness as the director's last film, the dystopian religious allegory Children of Men, because how could anyone possibly have expected something like that? It has less to "say", and though it says it very well, there's just not the same sense of having been unscrewed and filled with all kind of complicated, burning feelings about humanity. It's a magnificent, magnificent thriller, though, and one of the most dumbfoundingly impressive technological feats in the 20 years since Jurassic Park put the world on notice about CGI: comparatively, Avatar resembles James Cameron scribbling speech balloons on a prog-rock album cover, and Life of Pi is a crude doodle with a big orange cat no more impressive than your average Garfield strip.

Before I say a word about anything else, though, the sound mix: the very first thing that happens in the movie is a medium close-up of Earth, with an infinitely tiny speck of the space shuttle in the distance, and the very first thing we hear is someone talking, indistinctly, in the far back right. Then it slowly crawls around to the left and then center, getting consistently louder. We are being gradually dropped into the setting as the space shuttle moves closer, being pulled into the only audio possible in a rigorously silent space movie. It's the first time in years that a sound mix was so boldly foregrounded and conceptually perfect that I wanted to start crying and cheering at the same time. From the sound mix. Which continues to be absolute perfection throughout, but nobody wants to read the review that focuses on sound mixing, so I'll shut up about it.

The film takes place in an unspecified year that cannot exist: the U.S. space shuttle program, ended in 2011, is still up and running, while the first Chinese space station, launched later that year and still not permanently manned as of 2013, is in full swing. Here we find mission STS-157 (the actual shuttle program ended at STS-135), led by Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), adding a new program to the Hubble telescope; this installation is headed by the civilian Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a biomedical engineer. An accident involving a Russian satellite has triggered a cloud of metallic debris directly on the same orbital path as the Space Explorer (fictional), and before Kowalski, Stone, or the rest of the unseen crew have a chance to react, their rig and vessel have been torn apart, and Stone is flung into the vastness of space, spinning around madly.

That all happens in the opening shot, by the way. For all that Children of Men boasts some of the most stupefying long takes in the history of the artform, it's banal and unsophisticated compared to Gravity, which includes several different sequences in which a single take proceeds for minutes at a time, and never in simple, clean set-ups, but always with flying, balletic abandon, gliding in towards characters and back away, around objects, through tiny spaces. If I persist in finding Children of Men to have the more impressive and important cinematography, it's because that film had to do everything practically, minus some digital stitching; Gravity's most amazing shots are almost entirely CGI, absent the faces of the actors, and we're basically watching an incredibly realistic, thoughtfully-constructed cartoon for a great deal of the time (though not as much as I'd expected beforehand (in fact, fully half of the movie has a completely physical Bullock on what I imagine are largely physical sets). You can simply do more that way; it's not as ballsy and live-wire as having to do things constrained by real-life physics.

That being said, Gravity doesn't use "you can do anything in CGI" as a crutch, but as a challenge and a dare, and when Cuarón and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki set themselves to doing anything, they end up doing everything: their virtual camera is employed in unbelievably complex movements that shift through varying perspectives in subtle but profoundly effective ways. They mimic traditional effects of editing through the abruptness with which the camera that was moving that way is now moving this way, and in so doing say more with that shift than an edit (which we would expect, and therefore be anesthetised to) could. They evoke with indescribable success the sense of being in the zero-G environment being depicted, all the more so when the film is filling your field of vision on the biggest screen possible in the most vivid 3-D of any mainstream movie since the contemporary 3-D boom began in 2007 (the only movie I can think of that uses the technology to better effect is the German dance documentary Pina), and the sensory overload is complete - I should mention, I didn't have the film filling my field of vision, and it wasn't the biggest screen possible, and I still got totally sucked in by Gravity, ho ho, a pun.

Nothing I've said probably indicates why this isn't all so much film nerd candy - achingly long takes being the kind of thing that normals don't even notice until they are pointed out (and I have firsthand evidence of a normal not realising that the opening shot of Gravity is 17 minutes long), and when they are noticed, being the kind of thing that is held to be "cool" more than anything - but much as it was in Y tu mamá también, the unedited moving camera serves as a way of taking us into the characters (or character, really, this is pretty much entirely the Sandra Bullock Show), situating them in their physical environment, tightening our identification to them and the world as they experience it (this is not as much the case in Children of Men, where the tracking shots tend to serve a narrative rather than a character function). Literally: at a certain point, the camera moves right inside Stone's helmet, and we see things literally from her very eyes, nor is this the only time that the image is occupying something only millimeters away from her exact point of view. We could also argue that creating a completely plausible reality is key for the film's later effectiveness, and that uninterrupted stream of visual information is a way of establishing that reality and playing sleight of hand with the glut of CGI: "no, see, it has to be real, look at how we just shot it from 83 different angles!"

All of these things - the deepened reality of the film plane, the attachment we form to Stone (helped out by Bullock's innate likability, though I don't quite understand why she's being touted as having given such a phenomenal performance - a lovely movie star turn, absolutely, and impressively difficult technically, but I doubt she gave the best performance possible even among the names approached for the part. I am, however, very happy that Blake Lively said no), the tangibility of non-real sets and locations - go a long way to explaining why Gravity works so fucking well as a thriller, so infinitely better than its most obvious forerunners in the "isolated person in an extreme survival situation" genre like Open Water and Frozen. Actually, the mere fact of not having characters so awful that I was rooting for wolves to eat them by the five-minute mark would be enough to make Gravity better than Frozen, but it's much, much deeper than that. It is a visceral movie: the genuine feeling of weightlessness in the visuals makes sure of that, as does the way that our disorientation and Stone's are so nimbly tied together, so that we really feel her situation even if we haven't yet made up our minds if she's sympathetic or not. And the 3-D helps a great deal: when that 17-minute opening shot ends with her being flung into a star-speckled void, she is the lone point of dimension against an impossibly distant backdrop of space and the invisible but tangible plane of the screen, and it feels unbelievable isolated and suffocating; it is almost certainly the single best use of 3-D I have seen in a movie.

Where the film does go a little bit awry is in its attempts to be a rich, tearjerking character drama on top of a survival thriller about being stuck in the unfathomably inhospitable void of space, done mostly through the artless application of a backstory involving a tragically dead daughter, injected just at the right moment to feel tacky (the screenplay, which Cuarón wrote with his son Jonás, is the weakest part of the project - not the story and scenario, mind you, just the screenplay). That being said, a scene were Stone cries and her tears immediately ball up and float off her face - one "hits" the camera lens, in a wonderfully nice touch - is genuinely moving. And Steven Price's generally quite good score, which runs the gamut for horror movie stings to a goopy, soaring anthem to human durability, does a fine job of giving you an emotional workout, making the end in particular seem much more awesome and grave than Lubezki's incredibly dramatic camera already did. Still, the thing it does best is to create an immediate series of strong feelings, not to explore more airy concepts of spirituality and fear of death, which feel a little phoned-in, honestly. The visceral impact is already more than enough to make Gravity a thoroughly involving piece of experiential cinema, and that provides all the human interest necessary. The only places the film bogs down at all are in its most nakedly "watch Sandra feel sad" moments, though something with these kinetic visuals can never be said to "bog down" at all, really.

In short (the time for which was 800 words ago): this is the most engrossing film I've seen in ages. It's more about being intense than about being deep, but that is the privilege of a great thriller, and Gravity is more than a great thriller; it is the greatest thriller made in years and years, a movie using all the finest tools of modern filmmaking at their best advantage to tap into the most primal kind of cinematic emotion-making. It's gorgeously complex and deliciously simple in one and the same breath.

9/10

20 comments:

Jeremy said...

very, very good movie when it decides to shut up from its chewy dialog, Oscar clip monologues, and obvious symbolism. It connects with you more when it stops trying to connect with you. There's just about no way Lubezki gets denied this time though, right? I mean, my goodness. I agree with you about Bullock, who plays her part very well, but this is clearly the Alfonso Cuaron show and she's along for the ride.

And that's what it is, a ride. An absolute thrill ride, the kind of thing lame movie critics say unironically all the time, but here that's totally apt. Everything you see is what you get, some of the most technically accomplished blockbuster filmmaking you'll ever see on the big screen. At times it seems like the most impressive formal experiment ever caught on film then a particularly strong narrative or great screenplay, but I know you're a big formalist Tim, so I knew this would be right up your alley. Myself, I say it's the best blockbuster that wasn't The World's End.

Travis Earl said...

I won't get to go until saturday night but right now I can't even fathom how amazing these special FX must be to be getting these kinds of reviews. I'm prepared to have my mind thoroughly blown.

Ajay said...

So, Tim, 100M dollar question: Lubezki + Cuarón or Lubezki + Malick?

Fedor Ilitchev said...

Hi Tim,

I didn't like this film as much as you did. Here's why:

1. The situation is ridiculous. The various spacecraft would all have to be in the same orbit for any of this to be feasible. This analysis suggests that this isn't the case - http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/01/science/space/an-astronaut-and-a-writer-at-the-movies.html?_r=0 - why would they be if, under such circumstances, a small mistake would result in the catastrophe we saw in the film?

2. As you said, the script is weak. The whole 'daughter' story seems like a forced addition to try to make the film more interesting. The acting is good but, even with a great script, you would need tremendous acting for this to really work. I mean, visually, we spend so much time looking at Bullock's face - I personally don't think that she is expressive enough to shoulder such attention, especially in the context of the script as it is.

3. The cinematography is a tremendous achievement - it is what makes the film at all interesting to watch. However, that same cinematography is also mostly CGI which I'm no fan off. Today its new and people like it - in a few years, it will look dated. Some people, people like me, will be irritated by it right off the bat.

In the end, I'm just not sure why the movie was made... what the point was. There's an interview that suggests that the director was going for some serious existential themes or something like that... if that's what he was going for, he surely should have picked a different story to carry them. As it is, it feels like he went for it because it was so darn challenging and contains some novel images - to me, that's not reason enough to make a movie, especially one took as long to make as gravity.

Travis Earl said...

@ Fedor,

I came here to post basically the same thing. I feel that Gravity has the best FX I've ever seen but it wasn't quite the quantum leap above everything else that reviewers made it out to be. It wasn't as mind blowing as seeing Avatar in IMAX for the first time.

The script could have been much tighter. It was really just this happened and then this happened. (spoilerish) Bullock's character survives through sheer blind luck until the last act when she is finally given some agency. Also, I found the character work trite. However, the visuals are out of this world and every fault the film contains pales in comparison to the thrilling FX onscreen. It really did push the limits and set a new standard for FX; I just don't think its THAT much better than other 3D films out there.

Basically, it's a film that will be talked about for awhile and deservedly so; I just wish they'd spent more time on niceties like story and character. However, in the end it's is really minor quibbles next to what Cuaron achieved in terms of sheer cinematic experience.

Mia Steinberg said...

I just came from seeing Gravity in IMAX. I'm pretty sure I can count on two hands the number of times I breathed during those ninety some-odd minutes; for all its flaws, it's a stupendously tense piece of cinema, and I'm overjoyed that it focused on a female character when it could have easily been the George Clooney show. Once I catch my breath I think there's something to be said for this; it's one of the first times, in my memory, that a quasi-realistic astronaut movie has focused so concretely on a female lead.

'Gravity' was wonderful in that it made me feel stretched out and drained dry and giddily energized with the magic of what movies can do.

Aravena said...

Hype can does funny things to people's minds. That's why I completely avoid reading a full review of a film before actually watching them. Many people have already came to me and said, "Meh, it's nice-looking, but..." about Gravity, the same way people said "Meh...it's not THAT scary." about The Conjuring AFTER all the hype.

I enjoyed Gravity a lot. Watching it with somebody I care a lot probably helped;we're holding hands by the end of it, mentally willing the character to make it. Yes, some of the lines are annoying and I'm aware that my emotion is being manipulated, but it worked out very well.

It's really not about the gorgeous special effect (which, of course, will become dated) to me; it's about how it worked IN CONJUNCTION with the characters' situation, the conflict set-up (which, let's face it, has to sacrifice some amount of realism and I'm completely fine with it), the camera movement, and such. The result is a string of terrific set-pieces and a great isolation thriller; treat it as it is instead of some cinematic breakthrough, and you'll be fine.

David Greenwood said...

Wow, I'm amazed at the backlash already kicking in about this movie. I mean, I'm not gonna go all BEST MOVIE EVER on it, since it's really only trying to be a gut wrenching thriller. But what a thriller!

The only movie I can think of that affected me physically to this extent is Day Night Day Night, and that film only in it's climactic section. Gravity was nerve-ripping throughout.

People complain about the sentimental or dramatic sections, but as far as I'm concerned those needed to be there just so that the audience could catch their breath. And yes, the music and the dialogue are manipulative. But it WORKS, dammit. Yes, you could poke holes in the science of the scenario by rigorously analyzing it. Why would you? Why kill the things we love?

As for Bullock, I agree, this isn't Best Actress material. But I don't think that's really a shortcoming. We're supposed to identify with Ryan, that's the most important thing about her character. We're literally inside her head at some points. Bullock's everywoman quality really helps.

And for what it's worth, I even found the backstory about her daughter to be thematically appropriate. Ryan struck me as a textbook scientist, but the sudden, unpredictable death of her daughter was something she just could sort out. Hence her habit of driving aimlessly, somehow reliving the moment when she learned about her daughter's death. Observing it, perhaps, trying to come up with some context that never arrived.

The sudden nature of her daughter's death seemed to dovetail with the situation Ryan herself wound up in. One minute you're fine, the next you're drifting in space alone and everyone on your ship is dead. In short, it was an emotional grab, but not nearly as off-putting to me as it seems to be to others.

Too long of a comment perhaps, but it was a pretty damn good movie. Expect some Oscars, and a nomination for Bullock (maybe even Clooney). Not that I think either was earth-shatteringly good, but I treat the Oscars like a spectator sport... their odds of getting a nom are good :)

Tim said...

"I treat the Oscars like a spectator sport"

As should we all, and the film-watching internet would be an incomparably healthier, happier place.

Mysterious F. said...

I think you'd like to know that Buzz freakin' Aldrin is a fun of Gravity, Tim:

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/gravity-review-by-astronaut-buzz-639883

Travis Earl said...

@ Brian,

I don't think anyone would argue that this movie isn't a great technological feat; I was suitably impressed and awed throughout as well as being very tense.It's really only the superlatives being bandied about by critics that put a lot of people more on guard. Even Tim's review says that no film could really live up to the hype. I doubt many people would actually say this was a poorly done film but now that it's pretty much unanimous that Cuaron set a new standard for special effects people are looking beyond the effects to the story they tell: there are legitimate criticisms on that front. However, like I said before, it's not like the flaws cripple the movie and it's undoubtedly great. I know I'll be catching it at least once more in theatre.

Regular GeoX said...

SPOILERSPOILERSPOILER





I just saw this movie and liked it, though I wasn't as enraptured as some. But here's one thing I really liked: the way that Clooney's character, in dying, didn't have any kind of dramatic exit: he just drifted off into space and was gone, the way anyone would in real life. That impressed me, and drove home the reality of the film's world.

Woodside said...

@David Great comment about the backstory, which is the primary criticism of the film I keep encountering. Even while I agree that the screenplay is probably the weakest part of the film, the thematic directness and lack of nuance really worked for me. I think I'd probably get to the heart of my issues pretty quickly if my survival literally depended on figuring out what to do from second to second. The overwhelming bluntness of the theme (heh, her daughter was essentially killed by gravity and now Ryan lives without it), combined with that bombastic score, and the visceral theme-park thrill ride aspect cohered into a singular experience that was unlike anything I've felt in years. To me, it read like a tone poem about grief and the way it unmoors you from reality and the decision everyone has to make about whether to continue on or not - To be or not to be, etc. Sure it's not the most original theme, but what a fantastic milieu in which to explore those feelings. After all the contemplation and study of space is nothing if not the study of our existence.
But really it's just a survival story done exceedingly well. And also a bunch of overt evolution symbolism that I don't know what to make of yet.

I need to go see it again!

Travis Earl said...

* my preceding comment was directed at David, not Brian. Don't know where that came from. It'd be great to have an edit function on the comments.

DeeperUnderstanding said...

Just, Fuck, I loved this so much! My beef with 3D movies has always been that the editing doesn't work, because that's not how we experience three-dimensional spaces. This movie solved that problem and then some, such a leap forward.

Brian said...

When I last left a movie theater a few weeks ago, I didn't really think there was any chance that something would come along and top The World's End for my own personal #1 movie of 2013.

Holy fuck was I ever wrong.

I was shaking for an hour+ after this movie was over. God fucking damn. That is great film-making. Just...

I used to dream as a kid of going into outer space. Any vestiges of that dream were murdered tonight by Alfonso Cuaron, Sandra Bullock, and George Clooney.

Cameron said...

The phrase "medium close-up of Earth" makes me laugh. In a good way.

re naldo said...

There were several allusions to the foetus and birth. Life esp. LIVING was its main theme. I wrote about it here.
http://wdatc.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-mother-birth-and-life-gravity.html

Vianney said...

I want to read a review that focuses entirely on the sound mix. Make it so.

Unknown said...

Watching the little Behind the Scenes vignette that was uploaded to Youtube a few days back, I was astonished to find that many of the interiors were actually CGI. An astonishing use of the technology.