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Jan 15, 2014

Review: GRAVITY (2013)

           Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris (voice), Orto Ignatiussen (voice), Paul Sharma (voice), Amy Warren (voice) and Basher Savage (voice)

                   Alfonso Cuaron

                  Gravity is one of the rare films which pleases both cinemagoers and critics alike. The kind of film that generates lots of bucks, uses lots of different modern techniques and has some great talent attached to it. Forget the detractors, they are always a part of this process, they are always going to be there. This particular project by the wonderful Mexican filmmaker, Alfonso Cuaron, got my attention the moment it was announced. It was supposed to be released in 2012 but then the dates were changed due to extra post-production process. I waited for it with utmost anticipation and curiosity because of the talent involved and the title itself which sounded really scary for a film set in space. Finally it was revealed that Gravity will have its world premiere at the 70th Venice International Film Festival and that was the start for the gushing praise and accolades it started to get and continues to do so at this very moment. While I wasn't able to watch it on big screen because it didn't reach here in time for me to be able to catch it, the experience I had watching it in my home didn't feel incomplete. Though I'll always regret not watching it on big screen and in 3D but it worked for me on a small screen and that is more than I could have asked for something that many claims wont survive much due to its scope and technical aspects that suits ONLY a big screen experience. Before I could get my hands on this most anticipated 2013 release of mine, there were already talks of how it was weak in certain aspects and that it was nothing more than a cinematic experience. Really? What else do you go to movies for? Whether it's a sci-fi film, a drama, a comedy or an art film... it is always an experience. Cinema is experience. If there wasn't any emotional and humane storyline added to this 'survival' tale than people would have complained of it being just an action film where things are blown and everything rings false and reeks of desperation for cash. Now that there is as much of a decent emotional story in this film as it has groundbreaking visual effects, suddenly its too much for people. Make up your mind first. Do you want an empty action film or an action film with some emotional heft and decent, affecting story to go with it? Screenplay of Gravity might not rank as great as few other films of the year because of the limitation the story and plot itself has, it still is not a weak or the worst aspect of it.

                  Now that I got that out of my system, lets talk about the plot. Gravity is a 3D sci-fi space dramatic thriller that is directed by Alfonso Cuaron. He wrote the film with his son Jonas Cuaron as well as co-edited and co-produced it. There are few limited voice performances but mainly, it stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone who is a medical engineer and is on her first space shuttle mission. Clooney plays the role of a veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, the commanding officer of the team on his last mission. The film basically shows how these astronauts gets caught up in the mid-orbit destruction of the Space Shuttle Explorer and how they attempt to survive and return safely to Earth. Simple right? It sounds deceptively simple and on paper, it is so. Yet the experience you have is indescribable in pure words. I was as mesmerized by the technical sorcery as much as I was overwhelmingly moved by the story. I was as impressed by the performances as much as I was delighted by the use of some interesting allegories and metaphors. There is so much for me to talk about and so much to delve into but I don't think any one can. But I'll give it a try nevertheless, I am a writer and that is my job (!). By the way, the stunning cinematography of Gravity is done by Emmanuel Lubezki who is probably my favorite working cinematographer right now. He was the perfect choice for this. He has worked with Cuaron before of course. Lubezki's usual free-flowing, gliding and surreal aesthetics work well in this mostly (or completely) digitally done film. Now I don't want to get into the merits of such photography in relation with other usual works in this field because that is awards talk but it is cinematography, it is something and it is there. But the reason I am talking about all this is because of the very first shot of the film brings forth, the kind of experience Cuaron wants you to have and Lubezki is a great fitting for it. We get the first glimpse of our Earth from outer space. Bright and glowing, almost breathtaking in its beauty. You hear some voices coming from a distance. It is those astronauts on their routine spacewalk, they are servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. As they come near and then right in front of our sight, we are introduced to them via uninterrupted and freely gliding shot as they keep on doing their work. They are talking, Kowalski is playing and talking while others are working. We see Stone who is a little nervous and unease because it is her first time. While this shot continues (and it never ends until after all hell breaks loose on them), Mission Control in Houston warns the team that a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite has caused a chain reaction of space debris that is heading towards them. They are ordered to abort the mission.

                  Shortly after that, all communications are lost but the astronauts keep trying. Suddenly, the debris is seen coming right towards them and in matter of seconds, the Explorer gets badly damaged and Stone gets detached from the shuttle during that as she tumbles badly through space. Kowalski tries to help her along and he is able to eventually recover her. They make their way back to the shuttle but find the extensive damage that has been caused and that the crew is dead. They decide to use the thruster pack to make their way to the International Space Station. Kowalski estimates that they have just 90 minutes before the debris field complete an orbit and potentially harm them again. It is stunning to see the destruction of the shuttle that happens in mere seconds. One of the many eye-popping sequences that are done is such a way that literally transfers the horror of being in a similar situation. Steven Price's score really helps increase the tension where it is needed. Definitely one of the best scores of the year. It is almost heart-stopping, the fear during those scenes. The tension is unbearable and the severity of the situation keeps you on such an unease that you almost feel like holding your seats tightly. The way camera moves with or along Stone as she tumbles through, at a point slowly approaching her and then putting us right in her point of view is a genius thing. That is yet another highlight when you are put right inside the space suit of Dr. Stone as the claustrophobia is felt. The vacuum space and its silence feels and seems scary from that perspective. And then the camera traces back and now the usual putting-the-character-in-the-backdrop-of-calamity feels even more severe and frightening as you are able to witness Stone's fears from a distance. During those scenes, the placing and shifts of camera ensues all kinds of reactions inside the viewers. When the camera shows the glowing Earth, the warm and safe embrace like a mother, you feel good and hopeful. Then the camera puts the characters and objects in front of the dark, endless, void space and a sudden fear latches on to our body. Anything can happen. There wont be anyone to find if something happens to you. The tagline of this film is recalled, don't let go... never let go! In all the spaciousness of space, the hold of hand or any bigger and stable object is all you need. There is no gravity in space, the Earth is however a different story. It is not only the Earth itself that holds us all but it is the people around us. In space, it becomes more of a psychological and visceral aspect, for one to keep their spirits up for survival. You do that by never letting go of what holds you as human being and an object put on the face of the Earth in the first place.

                  All of the things I have mentioned so far for me worked not only as mere delight of how technically and carefully they were used in the film itself but they helped me a lot on many more terms. Those were the things that I immediately recognized, things I felt as I was put in such situations. Then there were things that really stuck with me after watching the film and giving it all a thought. The most prominent of them has to be the use of spiritual and religious themes in the film. There is an emotional back story about Stone's daughter that I wont reveal just for the sake of it. Those who have seen the film knows what I am talking about. That really worked for me as a viewer who was supposed to spend the later amount of time only with Dr. Stone and the courage and resilience she gets from her daughter's incident is what really brought me to cry like a baby. I mean you don't know anything about these two characters yet the little bits of things you do, during their conversations as they are making their way to the ISS, really give them the kind of emotional heft that you need to feel their pain and get affected by what they are going through. So the incident with Stone's daughter is what helps her survive. Stone reminds herself that her daughter is out there looking out for her, that she would want her mother to do the best she can to survive. There is a particular moment with Kowalski, a surprising one, that is very surreal. There are a few reminders for the character of Stone herself. Like in one instance, she comes across a statue of Budai. The implication of a higher force in a none religious manner that is, reminds us that technology can go so far. A man can find ways to explore the vastness of space, walk on the moon or find life in places beside the planet Earth but we always feel the need to believe that there is somebody or something out there whose existence or presence is much larger and unexplainable than one would think. No matter how many ways one can find, all roads leads to that one place. Our origin, where we come from. And we come from nothing and we go to nothing. But you cannot be sure of what is on the either side. You are either born or you die. The time you spend in between is your life and your life is what you make of it. Curiosity remains... all things in their due time! It is unbelievable when I hear talks of either a weak screenplay or squirmy dialogues or too much story or underwhelming dialogues or too apparent themes. The Gravity I watched was more than sublime. It gave me an experience where it was supposed to, it made me latch on emotionally to the things it was required to and then it gave me things to think about for the future. That is a job well done I must say!

                  Sandra Bullock right here gives the performance of her career. Sure, any other actress could have done it but why do we care? Bullock from her persona, her physicality, her usual star presence gets the most sort of help in the beginning. But as the film progresses, she gives the role and the film, the right kind of emotional vulnerability that it needs. There are scenes where I could frankly say that Bullock nailed it. She gives one of my favorite performances in a sci-fi/fantasy/horror/thriller film. From the newbie astronaut her character is introduced as, to the scared and then hopeful survivalist she becomes. Convincing portrayal all along by Bullock. Her character is developed in accordance to how any person would perform under such given circumstances. She is a woman, a trained astronaut, first mission, emotional baggage from her past, caught up in the worst imaginable situation and she has to battle all that on her own. The physical troubles she gets into, she finds ways to survive. Stone remains level-headed with a clear mind. Of course there are instances where she doesn't know what to do so, improvisation helps. It's a make it or break it situation, you just do things and see how it all turns out. There are psychological and emotional changes that are involved as a result of the catastrophe. And then if nothing seems right, there is always hope so that is featured as well. I am really impressed by Bullock's brave and affective performance. For once, I am impressed by how the studio allowed Cuaron to base his important character on a woman. Hollywood is a man's world, men rules everything. There have been some exceptions lately though, box-office is being ruled by women as much as men. On camera and off camera, women are gaining influence and rightfully so. Bullock along with a few other actresses had a great year. Gravity also has George Clooney in it of course. His character wasn't problematic for me to be honest. Though I could have used less Clooney-attitude but well, he isn't in the film for that long so its alright. But yeah, he plays a character who is cheerful and a joke on the outside. A charmer as he is usually but has some past of his own. He was good enough in the film, nothing great about him but its okay to have some fun when that is not all a film or its character has to pull it off. Gravity doesn't rely on it like usual 'business-hopeful' films does so it is fine by me.

                  Gravity has probably the best visual effects I have seen so far, okay one of the best. Definitely the best space photography ever done in a film that uses space the way it does here. Whether it is the space itself or the Earth, the shuttles or their destruction, the interiors or the exteriors, everything is created and destroyed in the most impressively realistic way. If I have to compare Gravity to 2001: A Space Odyssey, my favorite film of all time which many of the reviewers have compared it to, it will be for the way space have been used to tell story about real human beings. As in not a science fiction story but a real one, be it existential examination of life and intelligence or survival of one. The way space is used to reflect back on human life and existence. The way horror and unpredictability of such a harsh but intriguing part of our universe have been shown. When I finished watching the film, I was feeling dizzy for a few hours because of how the whole weightlessness of the space feels so real even though I didn't watch it on a big screen. The visual effects are groundbreaking, the cinematography is exquisite, production design is marvellous and editing is just fantastic. Oh! editing... So Gravity has some really long shots that are tightly woven into each other in a way that gives an impression of a continuous propelling narration. Cuaron loves long shots and I as well but rarely have I seen something like that used throughout a film and not for a gimmick but for putting us in the midst of the action and making us a part of it. They work so well and they seem so interesting. There is both claustrophobia that is induced as a result and the sheer nature of the horror. The tension is heart-stopping and the journey is a difficult one. Both physical and emotional aspects work well. Cuaron plays with some very interesting themes, he does some really brilliant things with the characters and the situations they get in. Gravity is an experience, it puts you right in the shoes of the characters and at the same time, it shows them as they are experiencing those things. It moves at a brilliant pace, it dances its way through 90-minutes time. The movie is seamless, its hallucinatory and visceral. Its hypnotic and poetic, its simple and complex. It is a thrilling survival story and an emotionally moving drama. It is about human beings, their strength, their weaknesses. Their will to survive, the heroism in the face of adversity, it is about what makes us human, what holds us together and what sets us apart. Gravity is about life and death. It is about what is beyond what we know and what we think we know. Gravity is one of the best films of 2013 and ever. A triumph for 3D filmmaking and yet another reminder that cinema is the most wonderful thing created by a man and that it knows no bounds. Technology is great when it is used well. Gravity is one of the greatest accomplishments of our time.

Grade: A