Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gravity


2013. 91 min. PG-13. Scary. Very little language or blood.
IMDB says... A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

The 73rd Virgin says... It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Let’s get that out of the way.

Sure, all the normal space clichés are in place; pre-disaster ground control chatter so bad that you’ll think you’re watching a Michael Bay movie; yes, the hero’s name is Kowalski, one of those focus-grouped Hollywood names intended to convey just the right amount of jaunty ethnicity and blue-collar competence (I guess McBain was already taken); yes, it’s Kowalski’s last mission AND he listens to country music. When disaster strikes, ground controllers inform them that debris is coming at them at something like twice the speed of a bullet. Physicists/astronauts/pilots don’t talk like that.

It’s almost as if writer/director Alfonso Cuaron is making fun of us. The opening screen even goes so far as to explain to us that space is a vacuum that will not transmit sound, and that space is rather dangerous. This at least prepares the Star Trek/Star Wars crowd for realistically silent, and thus enormously effective, explosions.

But Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the special effects produce unbelievable images and a sense of distance and isolation comparable to 2001: A Space Odyssey. A scene in which Sandra Bullock faces the audience and works feverishly on a small bit of equipment while behind her an entire space station ignites and disintegrates with no sound or shockwave should become as iconic as Kubrick’s waltzing space station and space plane.

And what a joy to discover that the entire movie is only 91 minutes long. And if you have to spend 91 minutes with anyone, it might as well be Clooney and Bullock. Clooney is Clooney and his personality is pretty much indistinguishable from The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but Bullock is worth all of the $20 million or whatever. In an extended scene of maybe 5 solid minutes that seems to be a single take, Cuaron points the camera at her as she drifts in and out of consciousness, listening to and trying to interact with AM radio broadcasts from obscure parts of Scandinavia, hallucinating about her child and her fate, and talking to herself. These are the kind of scenes that occasionally make me realize that acting must be really hard.

Cuaron jumps breezily back and forth between first person point of view – like the most nausea-inducing video game you’ve ever played – and then to close-ups of the actors in their helmets as all the scenery spins maddeningly around them – and then to shots of bodies and machinery twirling away to just a speck. And he holds these points of view with only Bullock’s terrified gulps for sound effects for loooong sequnces. I know there was music, but I don’t remember it.

The 3-D is definitely worth it, and listening to the very precise sound design in a quality theater is as well. To acclimate us to the space and isolation the movie starts with a long sequence of barely audible radio chatter to your right that slowly gets louder. Hopefully, this also helps get the audience to shut up. I saw it in a nearly empty theater on a Tuesday night and that helps too.

Physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a bunch of tweets devoted to all the things wrong with the movie from a scientific standpoint but indicates that he likes it very much. That’s just one more thing I have in common with physicist Neil Degrasse Tyson.

For homework, all of us should dredge up 1969’s Marooned. Here's the Marooned trailer.

But Gravity is still unlike anything you’ve ever seen.


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