Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: Gravity (2013)

Gravity (2013)

You see, people? This is what happens when you take a "B-movie" genre and let filmmakers with real talent take a crack at it. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is the most intense, nail-biting thriller to come out this year, blessed by a pair of excellent lead performances and visuals that are not only gripping, but truly must be seen in full IMAX 3-D in order to receive the full experience. On 95% of occasions, I feel that seeing a film in standard 2-D is enough, with 3-D more often than not being a gimmick that can sometimes make the movie worse. Gravity, on the other hand, is in that other 5%, its visuals absolutely breathtaking and jaw-dropping in a way not seen since Avatar or The Lord of the Rings. It is for films like Gravity that movie theaters still exist, as this is the sort of experience that it would take a full, expensive home theater to replicate. Not only that, but even underneath the unbelievable visuals and special effects, there is still a deeply moving tale of loss and survival that helps the film truly soar where many empty-calorie blockbusters crash and burn. Sandra Bullock delivers the best performance of her career, and the story, while thin, is just fleshed out enough, giving the major players just enough depth and meat, that the film is elevated beyond just mindless action.

The story here is that two astronauts, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), are stranded in space when an exploding satellite creates a chain reaction of debris that destroys everything in space. (This is known as Kessler syndrome, and were it to happen in real life, it would be very bad news for us.) Clooney is his usual self -- calm, cool, and collected even in the face of disaster and almost certain death. This isn't much of a stretch for the Sexiest Man Alive, but his presence here is most certainly welcome. It's Bullock who is the real star of this movie, both from a story standpoint and in terms of who shines more as an actor. Ryan Stone is a woman who, initially, you want to grab a hold of and tell to get a hold of herself. She's a nervous wreck, someone who you would expect to be among the first to go in a movie like this. As the film goes on, though, as the layers of who she is are peeled away and all hope seems lost, Bullock's performance transforms her into a capable heroine who is singularly badass even though she never throws a xenomorph out an airlock. I'm not making that comparison lightly -- Ryan Stone is easily up there with Ellen Ripley among the great science fiction heroines.

And speaking of science fiction, it's nice to see a movie about space that actually respects such pesky little things as our knowledge of what space is really like. While some killjoys (such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is otherwise awesome but is missing the point here) have picked apart the film's inaccuracies, the film otherwise succeeds in making Earth's orbit feel like a real place as opposed to a carousel of explosions, without sacrificing thrills. It even uses some of its grounded science to find ways to generate tension, rather than simply throwing fireballs at the screen. For instance, in one scene, the lack of sound in space means that, when debris starts hitting the space station in the background, you're screaming at the screen "look behind you, Sandra!" as she's working on getting the Soyuz escape pod untangled from its prematurely deployed parachute. But she can't hear the destruction behind her, and even if she could, her bulky space suit means that she can't turn around that easily. To list more of this film's shining examples of combining scientific accuracy with edge-of-your-seat thrills would not only make this a very long review, but would also spoil what makes this film so amazing.

So I'll stop and just say that Alfonso Cuaron knows how to shoot the shit out of space. He had to develop brand-new filmmaking technology to simulate the zero-G environment, and his passion shows in every frame. Cuaron sets new records for long shots, the film frequently taking several minutes before it cuts away. The CGI is top-notch, only making Cuaron's direction look that much more breathtaking. This is an absolutely beautiful film, especially in IMAX 3-D, each shot looking like it could've been pulled from a coffee table book about the beauty and mystery of outer space. In fact, I'd scarcely be surprised if we do get just that, a "making of" book that's basically an excuse to showcase all of this film's most gorgeous shots in print. It really looks that damn good.

Score: 5 out of 5

You don't need me to tell you that this film is amazing. I'm just repeating what every other critic has been saying about it. But take it from me. This is not only one of the most intense movies I've seen all year, but it's got enough heart and beauty to push it over the top into borderline-masterpiece territory.

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