By Leslie Combemale
As Elton John sang "It's lonely out in space." In the new release Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón asserts it's not only lonely, it's also beautiful, vast and terrifying.
Superlatives like "best space movie since 1968's 2001" are getting bandied about, and that sets a critic's teeth on edge. One tries to avoid hearing about how new movies are received so as to stay objective, but sometimes that's impossible. For better or worse, it leads to screenings with folks expecting to be underwhelmed, or needing for a movie to prove itself worthy of such high praise. Hardly fair, but no matter…
Cuarón's Gravity, which takes place high above the Earth, exceeds even the wildest of expectations. The director of Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter, the Prisoner of Azbakan, and The Children of Men penned the movie with his son Jonas more than four years ago, then realized bringing their vision to the multiplex would take a world of invention, and a universe of patience. Among other things, no one had ever attempted an entire movie in simulated microgravity before…
Based on what is realized onscreen, they achieved and surpassed their aim by about 600 kilometers. Gravity paves a new path in filmmaking, challenging sci-fi and action directors and various experts in special effects, sound design, production design and cinematography, to aim for the proverbial stars, if only to achieve the same marriage of technical beauty and suspenseful storytelling exhibited here.
Getting the few caveats to complete enjoyment out of the way, it bears mentioning that anyone incapable of riding the tamest rides at an amusement park should steer clear of this movie. The goal of the filmmakers to bring the audience into the experience to such a degree as to blur lines between them and the cinematic action has never been clearer a pursuit. Vertigo is definitely a possibility. One doesn't get points on a date for hurling one's dinner on one's cineplex neighbor.
Also, the development of action onscreen builds slowly over its increasingly harrowing 91 minutes. This is a studied choice on the part of the filmmakers. It's a bit of an emotional switcheroo, lulling the audience into a feeling of safety, a feeling they can climb into the spacesuits of the leads comfortably without repercussions. The languorous opening scenes unfold seamlessly, showing our new friends in space suits orbiting and working together, over a whopping 13 minutes.
From there, the edits get shorter and shorter as the suspenseful action rises to a fever pitch. It's too late not to be invested, not to feel what is at stake for all involved. This editing style is a genius move, and clinches a connection between the audience and characters.
The story doesn't require nor should it have much explanation. A team of scientists are in space to add an experimental program to the Hubble telescope. We are immediately introduced to Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a doctor and creator of said program, who is orbiting for the first time. She is aided in her task by easygoing veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who cheekily jokes about breaking the record for longest space walk, on this, his last time out.
When consequences from an accident on Earth unleash space debris, what starts out as a beautiful albeit nausea-inducing experience in space goes terribly wrong. They must find a way to survive and get home, and the way is not only complicated, it's fraught with peril and challenge. It is understood there is no guarantee anyone will get back alive.
New techniques in digital filmmaking, and inventive use of light and sound result in the hyperrealistic space-scape onscreen, removing even the thinnest tether of disbelief. We, the viewers, are all in.
In order for this movie to work at all, everything had to be preordained, every shot, every angle, every lighting choice and then executed by experts who could somehow bring to life what had sprung out of the heads of Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón.
This perfect and meticulous attention to detail is courtesy of the masterful work of a team of creative problem-solvers that use their prowess as if each aspect of the filmmaking is an essential part of the cinematic puzzle being solved, and it is. To create what is seen, heard and felt, to bring a film in space to this new place, the work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the editing by Cuarón himself and Mark Sanger, the production design headed by Andrew Nicholson, and visual effects supervised by FX wizard and physics expert Tim Webber, must all flow together and lose their own identity, and they all deserve kudos.
Even the use of music is expanded to be utilized for sound effects, and musician Steven Price and sound designer Glenn Freemantle, as there is no sound in space, have to invent a way to express both emotion and reaction to events by creating a soundtrack different in every way from anything heretofore created for film.
There also has never been a better reason for the existence of IMAX and 3D, especially in combination. There is one moment in particular where it all comes together in a cohesive and powerful way when debris is ripping apart a space station. It stirs both horror and amazement in equal measure. It is such a beautiful, awe-inspiring piece of filmmaking, it almost distracts from the action.
It isn't the only time audience members will stop and ask themselves, "How did they do that?" This is a far cry from what Cuarón initially worried was "the worst possible scenario of animation and the worst possible scenario of a live-action shoot."
All the time it took for writers Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonas to build this movie from idea to execution would have been wasted without the right actors. As Matt Kowalski, George Clooney has an easy swagger and offers a strong and believable turn as the guy everyone wants with them in an emergency. With many years of experience, he is the only thing that stands between himself and Dr. Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) and disaster.
He stays calm even in the worst of times, but shows the tiny cracks in his armor one would expect with even the best training when faced with such circumstances. The movie, however, belongs to Bullock. This actress must go through a kaleidoscope of emotions, exposing the audience to the interior struggles, the inner demons she is wrestling from her personal life and the exterior struggle for physical survival from moment to moment.
In filming Gravity, the actress was required to go through rigorous bile-inducing physical maneuvers, like spending hours on end in isolation strapped into an oscillating cube, with a camera spinning around her and sometimes racing toward her going 25 miles an hour, stopping within inches of her face. She spent as many as nine hours at a time hanging in the air strapped into wires…Not only is she an essential part of making the integration of visual landscape and human character believable, to make the film resonate, she must carry the audience with her in her emotional journey.
She achieves this so spectacularly, by the end one cannot imagine any other actress playing her role. For present and future filmgoers she will become Dr. Ryan Stone of Gravity in the same iconic and powerfully feminine way Sigourney Weaver became Ripley in Alien.
Rare is the time when the Academy will lift their unspoken ban on sci-fi acting noms. This is just such an occasion.
Some of the credit for this spectacular finished product must also be given to producer David Heyman, (the Harry Potter series) whose involvement can almost guarantee a quality film.
What started out as just an idea between father and son, is finally being brought into theaters around the country, and one hopes both Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón are immensely proud of the finished product. Gravity is a study in collaboration and invention, of passionate filmmaking that reminds movie lovers why we keep going into theaters. It will reinvigorate your love of movies.
Is it that good? Yes. It's better.
About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren," is a movie lover and aficionado who aspires to get more people back into the beautiful alternate worlds offered in the dark at movie houses across the world. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns ArtInsights, an animation and film art gallery in Reston, Va. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster, the Harry Potter Fandom discussion, and other film related panels. Visit her gallery at www.artinsights.com and see more of her reviews and interviews at www.artinsightsmagazine.com.