'Gravity' a heart-pounding, space survival thriller
Published: Friday, October 4, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 5:20 p.m.
It’s a rare movie indeed that produces as strong a “How did they DO that?” reaction as “Gravity” does. Not since “Inception” in 2010, with its topsy-turvy hallways and cities that folded in on themselves, has a movie been this visually audacious and pulled it off with such spectacular aplomb.
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Note: Regal Hollywood 16’s IMAX theater in Ocala opens today with a 12:45 p.m. screening of “Gravity.”
However, “Gravity” offers much more than eye candy. (Though it’s worth stating again that this is a gorgeous movie, and the 3-D is incredible, which is saying a lot coming from a 3-D skeptic.) With its capable performances and relentless thrills, the movie is a survival story of the highest order, no pun-intended. In fact, its only flaws are when it tries to shoehorn in some unnecessary, ill-conceived bits of melodramatic character drama.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are stranded in space after their shuttle and the satellite they’re working on are ripped apart. (The accident, based on a theory known as Kessler syndrome, involves debris from an exploding satellite spreading and taking out other satellites, creating a domino effect of shrapnel circling the planet.) What you may not know is that the sequence from the movie’s opening shot of the Earth until the moment Stone goes hurtling into the void is one unbroken take. The camera floats, dips, bobs and spins around characters and objects, creating an uncanny simulacrum of actually being in space.
This is how much of “Gravity” is presented; there aren’t more than a couple dozen cuts throughout the whole movie. It’s incredibly hard to shoot a movie this way because of the preparation required, and director Alfonso Cuaron and his team deserve immense credit for their accomplishment. In addition to the camera work, the movie’s visual effects are top notch; as you watch the movie unfold, you take it completely for granted that the characters are in space and not some studio warehouse. (It helps that, until literally the last minute or two of the movie, everything takes place in space.)
Cuaron and his team also use sound very effectively to maintain a tense feeling throughout the movie. As “Alien” reminded us with its tagline in 1979, “in space no one can hear you scream” (because there’s no air pressure for sound to travel). “Gravity” takes that to heart; nearly all of what you hear is just the astronauts’ voices and the musical score. There are no deafening explosions, no clangs or clashes as objects get ripped apart, no puff of air as Kowalski flits about using his spacesuit jets. The lack of audio is deeply unsettling and further conveys just how isolated the astronauts are as they hang hundreds of miles in the air.
If there hasn’t been much mention of the narrative to this point, that’s because there’s not a lot to talk about. The movie is less of a story and more of a series of obstacles for Stone and Kowalski to overcome, and revealing what happens would kill much of the suspense surrounding their plight. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; we understand the stakes and can feel the terror, so the movie can just get out of the way and show what happens.
The problem is that the Cuarons (Alfonso wrote the script with his son, Jonas) feel the need to add some distracting bits of half-hearted characterization to the proceedings. Normally more characterization is a good thing, but it muddles things here because it feels so out of place and is executed in a sloppy manner. Bullock and Clooney are two of the most instantly likeable performers working, so burdening them with clichéd backstories (Kowalski is a wise-cracking veteran on his “one last mission,” Stone is the emotionally closed-off scientist dealing with a secret trauma) was a mistake. Whenever the movie shifts its focus away from the astronauts’ immediate troubles, it grinds to a halt in a hurry.
Thankfully these moments are relatively rare. For the most part, “Gravity” is an extremely accomplished, incredibly intense ride, and it’s probably the closest most of us will ever get to being an astronaut.