Sunday, October 6, 2013
On the Big Screen: GRAVITY (2013)
This will be brief, because you can't really describe what happens in Alfonso Cuaron's film in any detail without spoiling the experience. We all know the setup by now: a terrible accident leaves spacewalking astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney stranded in orbit. I'll add only that the circumstances of the accident add a ticking clock element to an already dire situation: the same debris that caused the trouble is due back periodically, growing more dangerous as the destructive wave generates more debris each time. The plot is a race for survival against some of the biggest odds imaginable. The film itself is one part 2001: A Space Odyssey, one part The General, one part Alien. The Alien part is the actress stripping down to her space skivvies. Sandra Bullock now is old enough to be the mother of Sigourney Weaver then, and that the comparison doesn't embarrass Bullock makes her one of Cuaron's most impressive special effects. Launching herself gravity-free through the corridors of an abandoned space station, she's like a superhero or maybe a goddess. Her ordeal is an evolutionary experience (hence 2001) at least on a personal level if not as a vanguard for humanity. She has to solve problems of mechanics and translation that are complex in theory but plain enough on film, and she has to reclaim the will to survive. The astronauts' constant improvisation with gigantic dangerous machinery is where The General comes in, and Cuaron directs the thrills with Keaton's impeccable clarity. His first film in seven years (Children of Men was the last) lives up to the hype about its effects and the illusion of weightless action: it was great in 3-D and probably is awesome in IMAX. The only thing that keeps Gravity out of the august company I've invoked is the screenplay's (by Cuaron and son) insistence on a banal backstory for Bullock. To assume that a backstory of any sort is necessary given the peril her character is in is itself banal, as if the Cuarons lacked full confidence in the suspense of the situation. Are people not going to care whether Bullock or Clooney make it back because they know nothing about the characters' pasts? If they weren't interested in the first place they wouldn't be in the theater, so in my view the sentimentality is unnecessary and unworthy of something I've compared to Keaton and Kubrick. But you'll get over it. The corny moments count for little against the concentrated spectacle of this 90-minute two-person epic -- not counting the voice of Ed Harris (in a nod to Apollo 13), the still-obligatory doomed ethnic (heard but never really seen until there's nothing to see) and some floating corpses. It's the best adventure story I've seen on film in some time, and for now -- there's a lot of formidable competition arriving this same month -- the best film of 2013.