Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review: Gravity

With a Metacritic score as high as 96 and talk of Best Picture gongs, it's best to go into Gravity with normalised expectations.

This is not an arthouse sci-fi extravaganza in the tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is also not an unspeakable horror film detailing a slow suffocating death in outer space (both a pity and a huge relief).

It is, however, breathtaking visual filmmaking and a marvel to behold. Director Alfonso Cuaron beautifully marries fancy (CGI) camera work (read long, slow, complex shots) with perfectly rendered special effects, a romping spacey score, deathly silence, where needed, and sharp pacing to put us right out in space with Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowlaski (Clooney), he taking in the beauty of space while she focuses on fixing whatever it is she is out there to be fixing.

(As a side note, it's weird that Cuaron fought to have a woman in the lead and then gave her a man's name, for no apparent reason. Not important, just odd.)

Disaster ensues, of course, in the shape of Russian space debris of some sort and the next 90 minutes are a breathless survival adventure, during which Dr Stone will learn life-affirming adventures. It's great stuff. It's just not the artistic masterpiece we may have been led to expect. Make no mistake - it's a great, gripping, expertly made film. You'll probably want to see it twice because, visally, it will blow you away. You just have to set your expectations at standard, script wise.
It's kind of like Cast Away, in space, with a woman, but much leaner and far more exciting. Like Cast Away, it puts one of the most likeable people in Hollywood in extreme, isolating circumstances where they must learn to let go and stop trying to control life. Unlike Cast Away, the action in Gravity is confined to what must be just a few intense hours in the life of Dr Stone. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks cries over a basketball. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock howl's with a dog. But I digress.

The other important thing about Gravity is that it centers almost entirely on a 50+ woman all alone in space. And still made tons of money at the box office. Take that 14-year-old-boy-demographic. More importantly, it is also the moment that Sandra Bullock finally approaches enough credibility as a character actress to start justifying her Blind Side Oscar as a career Oscar (this will all change for the worse if she manages to steal Cate Blanchett's Oscar). For the most part, her performance as Ryan is understated, heartfelt and appropriately subtle. It's just a pity the script didn't allow the second half of the film - and by extension Dr Stone's journey - to be as understated as the first. It may have tipped a gripping adventure yarn into haunting, devastating masterpiece territory. Or maybe not.

Gravity does have philosophical ambitions beyond the great visuals, but they're closer to Richard Curtis' In Time positivity vibes than Kubrick's abstract ruminations on consciousness in 2001. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Simple contentment may be the smartest thing of all.

All in all, you really have to see Gravity, but just expect a good night at the movies, not your world to be changed. Then you should be fairly blown away.

Another side note: this movie has amazing sets. For real.

And on a final note, Emmanuel Lubezki. Seeing as the whole ship on digital cinematography has clearly sailed (was there ever even a debate), we can accept that the way-overdue Director of Photography (the man behind the camera for Tree of Life, Children of Men, The New World, Lemony Snickets etc) will finally be bagging his first Oscar. 3D seems to do the trick lately, but he is well and truly deserving. For this and everything else he has shot. Huzzah.