Sunday, October 6, 2013

Try to Breathe: Revolutionary, overwhelmingly thrilling "Gravity" takes your breath away



Gravity (2013)
91 min., rated PG-13.

An awesome, overwhelmingly thrilling adrenaline rush. A soul-baring, emotionally profound human odyssey and think piece about survival, one's fight-or-flight instincts, and disconnectedness. A cutting-edge work of science fiction that doesn't need aliens as an extra threat and might as well be non-fiction. Without an atom of hyperbole, "Gravity" is breathlessly enthralling, impressively immersive, and thematically loaded. It's about something more than just Sandra Bullock flailing around in space but never About Something, refusing to sell its characters short for allegory and mere spectacle. And oh, what an astounding spectacle it is to behold. Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón (of 2006's "Children of Men") has pulled off a cinematic watermark that's like seeing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Jurassic Park" for the very first time. Experiencing it will be the closest many of us will have to being transported into space, and after getting off this ride, that's not such a bad thing.

Bio-medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first mission through space, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope 600 kilometers above Earth. Even if there is no oxygen, no air pressure, and no sound, she appreciates the silence up there. Her commander is veteran NASA astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who's on his last mission. During their spacewalk, Houston's Mission Control ("Apollo 13's" Ed Harris, a nice touch) tells them to abort their mission as a Russian satellite has been blown apart by one of their own missiles and could cause a destructive chain reaction. Space debris is fast approaching at 170 mph and no sooner does it strike their space shuttle, The Explorer. Ryan has no other choice but to untether herself from the spinning cargo bay arm and tumble through space. With communication to Houston being lost and oxygen flow depleting, her only hope for surviving is making her way to a Chinese space station with escape pods. It's a lot harder than it sounds, as everything that could go wrong does.

"Gravity" envelops and engages you from start to finish with its alternate scope and intimacy, sustained tension and high anxiety, consistent emotional pull, and an ultimate ray of hope. Immediately conveying a sense of awe, grandeur, and bravura filmmaking, writer-director Cuarón opens the film with an intoxicatingly composed, transcendently gorgeous long, unbroken take of the Explorer appearing as a dot from the right of the screen and slowly coming closer. With the kind of razor-sharp precision and technical virtuosity unimagined by anyone watching, the jaw-droppingly photorealistic view of Earth up in space is able to take your breath away. The soundstage rigging and computer effects in the painstaking behind-the-scenes process are seamlessly woven on screen that one would be tricked into thinking it was all shot on-location in Earth's atmosphere. Courtesy of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("To the Wonder"), the camera fluidly swims around the weightless astronauts and then employs POV shots from within their space helmets in one of many disorienting visual choices, so we really are right there with Ryan.

In what is essentially her one-woman show, Bullock is outstanding here, showing her craft that made her a relatable, appealing actress to begin with and finding a headspace as she virtually has to act with the vastness of space and hyperventilate. As Ryan Stone, an Illinois woman still recovering from an earthly tragedy and not prepared for her distressing quest to survive, Bullock vividly makes her journey that much more riveting to watch with a physically demanding grace and an organically earned emotional arc. Stripping himself of any movie-star vanity, Clooney gets critical time to establish his charm and humor, trying to soothe both Ryan and us. Even once he's gone, his presence still hovers.

Whereas 2009's James Cameron-helmed "Avatar" amazed from a technical and visual standpoint but left one empty on a narrative and emotional level, "Gravity" is an innovative, all-encompassing achievement that works on multiple levels. Writer-director Cuarón and his 32-year-old son Jonás wrote the screenplay together, and their style of storytelling is elegantly simple and unfussy, taking us from point A to B. They tell us all we need to know about Ryan and Matt, developing these two people with economy as if it were a two-handed play set in space and making it all the more intimate from being a project between father and son. Also, if you read between the lines, symbols of birth are there for added thematic value, from the nausea Ryan suffers early on, to a fetal-position image, to a lullaby, and then finally the life-affirming final shot. One keeps waiting for the film to trip up or turn hokey and sentimental in some Hollywoodized way, but it never does. 

Alfonso Cuarón displays the technique of what makes a thrill ride work like gangbusters when it's done right. He gives the viewer just enough time to breathe and collect him or himself before plunging them into the next jolting sequence. Augmented by Steven Price's sublimely stirring score and the miraculous sound design, both of which will no doubt induce goose pimples, every thrill set-piece is masterfully staged, terrifying, and veritably pulse-racing. At a beautifully compact, in-and-out 91 minutes that will never have you checking your watch but maybe your pulse, the unforgettable "Gravity" is the result of visionary movie magic. It's one breathtaking theater-going experience that was made for IMAX and finally justifies the use of the ordinarily worthless 3D format. Settle in and hang on to something.

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