Friday, October 4, 2013

Review: Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón (director of Children of Men and the best Harry Potter film, Prisoner of Azkaban) proves his chops once again with Gravity, a space thriller that I'm choosing to categorize as sci-fi even though it's not futuristic in any detectable way.

Indeed, it's a movie of its moment, particularly so if you're an astronomer or an astronaut, I'd imagine. The narrative's antagonist is the Kessler effect—the phenomenon of space debris crashing into other space debris and causing a cascade reaction as tiny, superfast pieces effectively multiply themselves. Part of me was hoping that, following the harrowing climax, the survivor(s) would address a session of Congress about the urgency of cleaning up our way-too-polluted orbital space. But that would have been preachy and lame, which is why I wasn't disappointed when it didn't happen.

My neck actually hurt after Gravity from the sheer tension of the experience. No space movie has captivated me like this since Contact, though for totally different reasons. The feel of Gravity much more closely resembles a submarine catastrophe movie than anything truly science-fictional.

What makes it unique is the much scarier setting. Sandra Bullock's character is a medical researcher who's pretty new to space, and George Clooney plays the retiring veteran who helps her overcome the full-on panic attack she (convincingly!) experiences upon being flung away from the ship with no tether. Bullock's relative inexperience helps keep a general audience informed just enough to stay engaged; while Gravity has a couple of Patrick O'Brian-style jargony moments, it's never confusing, at least not to those of us with a vague sense of physics and space science.

The filmmaking technology and skill on display here has earned considerable praise, and deservedly. Only one or two very brief moments looked at all fakey. The rest of it is, well, exactly the sort of movie I always hoped would get made once space tourism became cheap enough for Hollywood film crews to actually go out there; turns out I didn't have to wait that long. See this in 3D if you possibly can; whether or not to see it on an oversized screen will depend on your intestinal fortitude. At times, the camera spin is intense enough to make some audience members reach for the Dramamine.

The only complaints I have about Gravity are that (1) the rebirth imagery was laid on a little thick and (2) it would have been nice, near the end, to not feel completely certain, on account of the laws of Hollywood, that Bullock's character would survive. I'm not sure how the latter could have been achieved. The movie would've had to feel much more indie, for one, and it probably couldn't have maintained its focus on only the spacebound characters—cutting away occasionally to Mission Control might well have made us suspicious of who'd survive, but it would have broken the taut rhythm Gravity clearly was meant to have. And plus, it might've started to feel like Marooned.

Star Score: 4 out of 5

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