Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Intense Concentration of Self: Gravity, A Landmark Achievement of Modern Filmmaking.

Movie Review: Gravity

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Reviewed: 6 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

In Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, a young character named Pip finds himself adrift in the ocean during a whale hunt, and as his boat sails out of view, Pip faces the overwhelming isolation of being one man in an ocean: immovable, uncaring, and unforgiving. Melville states, "Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practised swimmer  as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore.  But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable.  The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God!  who can tell it?" There are moments in Gravity when space feels like the ocean and the astronauts merely floating shipmates, cast adrift in a sea of stars and firmament, struggling for a line or a hold, fearful of spinning out into the void. Alfonso Cuaron's explorers, much like Melville's, want desperately to survive their quest in an environment dominated by vortices and gravitational forces far beyond their control, "the blending cadence of waves with thoughts." Gravity unites astonishing storytelling with masterful cinematic technique, delivering a movie-going experience of the highest caliber.

This is why I go to the movies.

I refuse to spoil the viewing of this film for anyone, and I think the less said about the film's surprises, the better. I am thankful to have seen it opening weekend, especially in 3-D. In a remarkable twenty-minute opening shot that establishes theme, character, setting, plot, and tone, astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) work outside of their spaceship on an update to the Hubble Telescope, a chance to search into the beyond to see even farther than ever before. Kowalski seems the irrepressibly confident maverick while Stone seems the more brittle and reserved scientist. Their task involves a spacewalk on a jet pack, tangles of umbilical cord-like hoses, and the omnipresent spinning of the earth, ship, and astronauts themselves as they execute incredibly arduous movements with only each other and the voice of Houston's Mission Control in their ears. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's camera moves permanently on an axis, swirling around the astronauts, lingering over the glow of earth below and twinkle of stars above, establishing other landmarks in the sky as well as the voyeuristic close-up look at the outside of a spaceship. The visuals are completely jaw-dropping in their beauty, color, and depth. I see this film's use of special effects as a triumph in story-telling on par with Life of Pi and Avatar.

The constraints of depicting this environment ramp up the suspense and terror.  Without sound and quick cutting, Cuaron relies upon keeping his camera trained on his actors as well as the score by Steven Price to tell the story. Often, a point-of-view shot establishes the murkiness of an oxygen-deprived brain or the chaos of a wrecked ship. The film has a relentlessness that can be deeply upsetting and uncomfortable. It is difficult not to compare a majestic film of this reach with the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that film, an astronaut finds himself locked out of his own ship by a paranoid computer, desperate to save itself. Here, the conflict exists within. Can a person think a way out of an enormous, overwhelming problem? What is humanity's capacity for inventiveness and rebirth? How does one choose to die or live? Cuaron offers a spiritual dimension to these questions juxtaposed against the immensely practical aspects of solving problems, overcoming obstacles, and the clock steadily ticking. Both Bullock and Clooney are stellar here, doing incredible work that should be rewarded in a film that should be similarly recognized. I hope Gravity finds its audience much as 2001 did. The film's last shot took my breath away.

Yesterday was the six-month anniversary of Chicago Sun-Times Film Critic Roger Ebert's death. I wish that he had been alive to see Alfonso Cuaron's boldly ambitious Gravity because of its eye-popping visuals and its toe-curling intensity. Ebert said, "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it." He is right; the how is essential, and Cuaron has crafted an amazing film, reflective of a vision that inspires awe and emotion. I cared deeply about what happened to the characters in this film. To me, a successful film echoes for an audience far after the viewing ends. Gravity reverberates in my head, and I expect that it will for some time now.

It is the best film of the year.

1 comment:

  1. I agree James, best film of the year. This was a great post. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how this might connect to other recent works of film that pit a singular character against insurmountable natural odds? In particular, Robert Redford's new movie coming out soon with him alone in the ocean, Life of Pi, even Castaway. Does this say something about who we are right now and what we are experiencing or, and perhaps to your point in reference to Melville, is this the latest chapter in a long narrative about (wo)man's fight for survival on the frontier?