Friday, October 4, 2013

On Earth As It Is In Heaven . . .

Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone in Alfonso Cuarón's drama "Gravity".
Warner Brothers


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, October 4, 2013

One of the year's most staggering visual achievements, Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity" is an excruciatingly tense and claustrophobic journey.  Space has never been filmed so beautifully, including in "2001: A Space Odyssey".  Cinematographer Emmanuel Luzbeki ("The Tree Of Life") plunges us into a deeply intimate and absorbing realm of darkness, silence and peril.  It's one of the most intimate movie experiences I've had in years.  I sat suffering and gasping, watching helplessly and in amazement as this superbly executed story, written Mr. Cuarón and his son Jonas, unfolded.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on a maiden mission in space.  Accompanied by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and a third colleague they encounter trouble on a spacewalk.  Ryan is a loner.  Matt is a guy who apparently has it all figured out.  He's been there and done that.  The mission for him is a walk in the park.

What "Gravity" entertains so well, is life, and the fragility of things integral to its very fabric.  What we take for granted -- air, space, fire, water, gravity, time and breathing -- are friend and enemy to Ryan and Matt.  So are fear and panic.  A director of high skill and intelligence, Mr. Cuarón doesn't make these elements of nature enemies of his film.  He takes stock of them as pivotal characters in their own right, harmonizing their existence as yin and yang, beautiful things we all embrace and grapple with.  There are new and unique ways to deal with these elements, and the director tests his actors with these challenges in images of such detail and clarity that are so resonant they are poetry.

The elements make Ryan's plight more palpable and identifiable.  In Mr. Cuarón's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" Maribel Verdu, playing a terminally ill character, wades into the water, in a place dubbed "Heaven's Mouth", in a moment of serenity, triumph and resignation all rolled into one.  Ryan will wade too, in a different way, in one of two scenes of rebirth in "Gravity".  (The other is a shot of Ryan in a fetal position.)

Cinematically "Gravity" does something else so shrewdly.  The film connects birth, life, death, growth and evolution so deftly and credibly, without calling attention to them.  We watch a birth process without seeing it in the traditional hospitalized way.  A birth process of a fully grown human being in limbo, in the darkest, most heavenly of surroundings, and it is Ryan's own metaphorical birth.  She is orphaned by her experience in a completely new realm, one with almost no human contact.  In space NASA can't hear her scream.  The cocksure Matt is a figment of Ryan's imagination, it seems.  Ryan evolves as a child of fear, a fear of growing up in an unchartered world.  She matures as the going gets tough and reemerges as a woman.

"Gravity" is a refreshing break from "Armageddon" noise and bombast, and while there is noise in Mr. Cuarón's film, there's a wonderful peace about it that is stunning, scary and vivid.  "Gravity" seizes aloneness and isolation well, and in our contrasting short-attention span world the film forces us to think about loneliness, life and what really matters.  Space and fear are markers for replenishment and evaluation, and Ryan, who lives in the Midwest, has time to think in the middle of Nowhere.  Sometimes, too much time.  Sometimes not enough.  In these moments "Gravity" perhaps unintentionally takes on a spiritual quality.  Ryan is at an apex of reckoning within.  Fear of death, it is often said (in movies like "Rush" and in life), makes one most alive.  Ryan is at that height.  It's a dangerous, daunting and sexy place to be.

A great film is never perfect.  One weakness of "Gravity", a significant one, is the tomboyish assignation of Ryan as a character and how she is compromised in some respects.  "They wanted a boy", she drolly confides in Matt of her parents, as she explains the origins of her first name.  Matt, a George Clooney-esque type rendered by Mr. Clooney, is a comic relief act and star turn of vanity that tramples and deadens "Gravity".  Worse, Ryan's femininity and growth as an astronaut and a person are ascribed by Matt in key episodes, in the idea that only a man can do a "man's job", and that without a man's help a woman somehow can't. 

Those gender politics hamper "Gravity" to an extent, implicating the idea, via Matt, that being feminine doesn't cut it in the rarified air.  You, Ryan, must be an androgynous warrior like Ripley in "Alien", to earn your stripes and prevail.  Even in Ryan's last name, Stone, there's a hint of rock-solid masculinity.  Given that many women have ventured into space and lived to tell, "Gravity" bucks the trend for  filmdom's sake but keeps its tradition of masculine female film characters (most recently Linda Hamilton, among others.)  Surely Ryan can hack it, otherwise, why would she have been handed the mission in the first place?  Yet Ryan is impeded to a degree by Matt.  Why?  (On an unrelated note, Ryan has to let go of the very baggage Mr. Clooney did in "Up In The Air": leave everything behind, and carry with you only what counts: your soul.)

Ryan epitomizes career woman and parent, and is a superwoman without emphasis.  She soars and battles on her own for much of the mission, so why does she need help?  Ryan is heroic enough to progress as far as she has.  Ryan's fears alone are enough adrenaline to keep her going.  Mr. Cuarón appears to repair any perceptible damage later in the film.  Still, it would have been great to see Ryan entirely on her own in "Gravity", just as another Ryan, Ryan Reynolds, was in "Buried" or Robert Redford is in the forthcoming "All Is Lost". 

Overall though, you cannot deny "Gravity" its gravitas.  Ms. Bullock is marvelous here as Ryan, and despite less effective acting in the film's penultimate sequence, the actress exemplifies the fear and fearlessness of life and enables her character with the confidence and self-sufficiency she needs.  Ryan's fears are un-tethered yet tied to the ground: the familiarity and comforts of home, which reassure her hundreds of hundreds of miles above Earth.  Home, though, more than anything, is in the heart, and "Gravity" puts us there unabashedly.  This heart-pounding experience is exhilarating.  Even Felix Baumgartner's record-breaking jump from space almost a year to the day of this film's release, isn't as arresting to watch as "Gravity" is.

While Mr. Cuarón's film has its share of astounding visual effects, the magnitude of them are such that their presence is near invisible thanks to a well-woven script and director who takes full inventory of his environment.  None of what we see in "Gravity" is backdrop.  All of what we see is an indispensible cosmos, one not unlike that glimpsed in Mr. Luzbeki's aforementioned work in Terrence Malick's film.  There's a kinetic force to the film's opening hour -- throughout much of "Gravity" in fact -- that is riveting, gripping and incredibly powerful.  This adventure is the ride of a lifetime on the big screen, and IMAX does "Gravity" its greatest justice.  Mr. Cuarón's phenomenal exploration simply cannot be missed.

"Gravity" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing sequences and brief strong language
The film's running time is one hour and 31 minutes. 

COPYRIGHT 2013.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW