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On Review: 'Gravity'

November 1, 2013

Editor's Note: This is the first in a regular column of movie reviews by Spirit and Jefferson County Neighbors' reporters Dan Long and Matt Triponey.

After lackluster performances for several blockbuster movies this summer, the sci-fi thriller "Gravity" kicked off the fall movie season in an impressive fashion.

Without spoiling the plot, I will reveal that this movie is fantastic. "Gravity" follows the path of Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as they work on a Hubble Space Telescope. Dr. Stone is on her first space expedition and clearly demonstrates she
is a novice by losing tools and discussing personal issues
such as “keeping down her lunch.”

In comparison, Kowalski is the consummate veteran in space. He is also on his final space walk.

Kowalski’s character can best be described as “vintage Clooney.” He is cool, confident, and, as he does in all his films, he makes the complex sound simple.

"Gravity" unfolds in outer space, against a full-screen panorama of the Earth in the background.

The characters waste no time getting busy dealing with life and death issues.

For example, almost before the opening credits have finished rolling, the crew learns that a Russian anti-satellite test has set off a chain reaction of destruction, hurdling a deadly storm of debris in their direction.

This is where "Gravity" really shines....abundant action scenes.

"Gravity" is a visual treat from beginning to end, especially in 3D.

Impressive chunks of flying debris repeatedly just miss the viewer's head. From the inception, the film envelops you in every conceivable form of orbital jeopardy and keeps you there for the entire 91-minute running time.

Even when you think the characters are finally safe, you are quickly jerked back and reminded they are not.

After barely surviving the “debris storm,” Dr. Stone drifts through space, with feelings of isolation, panic and hopelessness setting in. Ultimately, she loses complete contact, not only with mission control in Houston, but more immediately, with her partner Kowalski.

"Gravity's" success in capturing Bullock's scenes of utter helplessness literally launches a new genre of truly scary movies.

"Gravity" seamlessly intertwines both the beauty and horror of outer space. When the film is at its most chaotic, it is done against a
jaw-dropping background of a gigantic planet Earth.

Through the use of stunning visuals and a great use of sound, Gravity does an incredible job of making you experience what it might feel like to be truly lost in space.

I saw the film in IMAX 3D, and I can’t imagine watching the movie any other way. "Gravity," like the classic "Avatar," is exactly what IMAX had in mind when it perfected the large-screen concept.

IMAX has never looked better, by perfectly showcasing the vastness of space. The addition of 3D, even with debris flying off the screen, never feels gimmicky or contrived. Very few films successfully take advantage of IMAX 3D. "Gravity" is a welcome exception.

Complaints about "Gravity" are mostly non-existent. Bullock and Clooney both give solid performances, but they spend most of the movie in space suits, making it harder for Clooney to appear glib and unflappable.

The real star, however, is the film's special effects, which literally steal the spotlight. A little more back story on the the two stars might help eliminate some otherwise vague interactions. Bullock’s character arc felt a little too convenient, including a later scene with Clooney that seemed entirely misplaced for a movie that worked so hard to be realistic.

The only other character of note in the movie is the off-screen voice of Ed Harris as mission control. Why the film's creators used such a well-establish and bankable star as Ed Harris in such a limited role remains a mystery. I didn’t realize it was Harris until the end credits. Perhaps his part was a way to pay homage to his magnificent performance in "Apollo 13."

I highly encourage everyone to see "Gravity." If possible, see it the way it was intended...in IMAX 3D. But, if you missed that boat, see it any way you can. The movie is that good.
— Dan Long

* * *
Gravity" is a technical achievement of the highest order. It is, purely from a visual perspective, the most tight, precise and technically impressive movie of the year — potentially of the last several years. As an overall film, it’s hard to say, but as a groundbreaking piece of pure physical construction, "Gravity" is on the all-time list.

As we speak, it’s almost inevitably rewriting the curriculum for every film class on the planet.

Director Alfonso Cuaron has done more thematically interesting and narrative-driven work in the past — “Children of Men,” for instance. But in terms of his skills behind the camera, "Gravity" is his masterpiece.
This isn’t just a special effects thing.

Often, when discussing how visually spectacular a movie is, that’s what people mean. And to be fair, "Gravity" did completely end this year’s race for the Academy Award in Best Visual Effects. But that’s not even half of its success.

"Gravity" is a propulsive and energetic film — so much so that it becomes easy to overlook how sparsely edited it is. It proceeds mainly as a series of high-stakes action sequences in deep space, and nearly all of these scenes are handled in one long shot.

Cuaron allows the action on-screen to dictate what’s happening with the camera. In fact, the camera almost becomes a physical object within the film, occupying the same space as the actors and the effects.

That space is infinite, obviously, and Cuaron draws the camera in large swoops around the action, anchoring it to something within the frame — usually Sandra Bullock, or her CGI avatar — and cutting loose.

There’s a real sense of cause and effect with the digital trickery — and it is impressively difficult to tell where the physical objects end and the special effects begin — which gives all of it a real sense of seamless presence.

And of course, Cuaron is an absolute artist with 3D. These scenes would save the film even with a subpar script. The action is tight, real and extremely physical, involving viewers to the extent that they are no longer observers but active participants.

But let’s talk about that script. Blockbusters these days are getting more and more convoluted — twist upon twist upon twist — and longer as well, clocking in almost inevitably at more than two hours.

Of course, none of that equates to them actually getting smarter or more effective. It’s a welcome relief to see something as lean as "Gravity." It’s simple and slight and — most importantly — it works. It’s easy to criticize the simplicity and straightforwardness of its story, to suggest that it writes by taking shortcuts, but in truth, it’s one of the most difficult tasks in the world to write something this small while also conveying the necessary information and involving the audience emotionally. "Gravity" pulls it off.

It has an extremely limited amount of time to endear Bullock and George Clooney to the audience, and it makes the most of it. And the movie is smart enough to tie their emotional states into something resembling an overarching theme that feeds into the plot, drives the action and leaves the audience feeling deeply satisfied when the credits roll.

Sure, there are a thousand different notes I could come up with to deepen the characters or the story. It could achieve a higher degree of poetic resonance. But every suggestion I could make would distract from the film’s central objective — to provide viewers with an experience.

Truthfully, I have mixed feelings about this whole “conceptual purity” thing. But I don’t mind it with "Gravity," because it doesn’t sacrifice its quality on that particular altar.

Honestly, the only true criticism I’m prepared to levy against it is the fact that its imagery gets very on the nose from time to time — I’m thinking in particular of the whole “rebirth” sequence.

Regardless, “"Gravity" is hands-down my favorite movie of the year so far — granted that I have a long way to go yet — and if you get the chance, it demands to be seen in theaters and in
3-D.

— Matt Triponey

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