Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #3: Gravity

"Life in space is impossible," the opening crawl announces in Gravity. And so it is. Beyond the confines of our atmosphere, there is—as the crawl also succinctly informs us—no oxygen, no sound, no air pressure. Astronauts who brave the pitiless environment of space must take meticulous precautions just to survive; one mistake means death. It is for this reason that space is an ideal setting for a horror movie (such as one that sports perhaps the most famous tagline in all of movies). And true to form, Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón's stunning depiction of one woman's battle against the void, is consistently terrifying, with dread pervading it at all times. It places its protagonist in certain doom and watches her scrap and claw just for the opportunity to breathe air and set foot on land. It is spare, harsh, and ruthless. Yet it is also exquisitely beautiful, astonishing viewers with its formal command and visual audacity. As a piece of storytelling, Gravity is merciless. As a work of cinema, it is rapturous.

Its magnificent, extended opening shot instantly establishes this twisted duality. Gravity takes place almost entirely in the black, inky void of space, and as Cuarón's camera—operated by six-time Oscar nominee Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot Cuarón's sublime Children of Men—glides toward a speck of an object, it immediately evokes the gargantuan, oppressive nature of the universe. Yet the camera does indeed glide, and there's a breathtaking gentleness to its graceful swoop as it gradually homes in on that speck and reveals it to be a telescope and a pair of floating astronauts. These are Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), but the camera doesn't settle on them; instead, it continues to rove, circling the gleaming telescope and looking back toward the stars. It's an opening that's equal parts horror setup and majestic opera, silently conveying the characters' precarious situation yet also marveling at their fluid movements and their ability to exist in this cold, forbidding world.

Yet even while Cuarón is casually exploring the vastness of space, he's also quickly delineating his characters. The rigidity of the astronauts' suits and the camouflaging nature of their helmets precludes him from relying on body language and facial cues, so he switches to sound. Kowalski natters over the comm system with mission control (voiced by Ed Harris, subliminally reprising his performance from Apollo 13), with Clooney's clearly modulated voice suggesting an inveterate master, while Bullock's clipped rasp paints Stone as a rookie. Together, they're trying to download data off the telescope, though the particulars of their task are irrelevant. What matters is the absurdity of it all: two people floating high above the heavens, seemingly oblivious to the omnipresent threat of death that surrounds them.

They get acquainted with that threat real fast. Shortly after mission control barks a curt warning, Steven Price's sinister score starts to stir, and a storm of debris floods the screen, its jagged, haphazard shards captured in unblinking detail by Lubezki's 3-D photography. Stone, who had been clinging to the telescope like a barnacle, finds her tether snapped in two, and suddenly she's off, drifting helplessly into nothingness. Cuarón's camera follows her fearlessly, and though he's just using a green screen and some computer wizardry, he somehow—helped in part by Bullock's palpable vocalized panic—communicates the overwhelming terror that engulfs her. It's as scary as it is technically amazing, and among Gravity's many accomplishments is its confirmation that revolutionary special effects can serve a story rather than themselves. Watching Stone careen into the void, body tumbling head over feet, you are not speculating about how Cuarón and his crew pulled this off. You're wondering how the hell she's going to survive.

She does, at least momentarily, thanks to Kowalski's spiffy jetpack. The two then attempt to maneuver toward a nearby spacecraft, the last vestige of civilization in this desolate blankness. At this point, Gravity shifts from a mesmerizing survey of the stars to a sharp, simple story of their indifference. The tale of man versus wilderness is hardly new, but the particulars here are decidedly novel, as Stone must conquer not only her own fear but also the persistent darkness that looms before her. And so, over the remainder of the film's economical runtime, she faces a series of practical problems. She finds herself, at varying times, clambering futilely up the sides of a space station, signaling in vain over a radio, attempting to pilot a shuttle that lacks fuel, and even trying to read instructions in Chinese.

As we watch Stone grapple with these impossible challenges, we also learn a bit more about her. She once had a daughter but no longer does, a loss that weighs on her and threatens to cripple her spirit as well as her body. Several critics have chastised Cuarón and his son, Jonas (with whom he wrote the screenplay), for supplying Stone with such a backstory, arguing that it layers unnecessary melodrama onto a film already laden with high stakes. But as with everything else in Gravity, this information is presented not with maudlin sentimentality but with fragility and tenderness. There are no treacly flashbacks or soothing voiceovers. There is simply Stone's monologue about how she likes to drive aimlessly while listening to the radio, a humanizing detail that succinctly maps the depths of her depression without preying on her audience's emotions. (The movie's one capitulation to fantasy, in which a character briefly returns from the dead, is as nightmarish as it is dreamlike.) And Bullock's rich, soulful performance is counterbalanced beautifully by Clooney's, which takes an archetype—the supremely competent veteran—and imbues it with twinges of humor, thoughtfulness, and melancholy.

As a result, Gravity is something of a hybrid. Technically, it is unimpeachable. The cinematography is jaw-dropping—along with the elegant camera moves, it features the best use of 3-D since James Cameron's Avatar—while the cutting-edge effects merge with Cuarón's extraordinary vision to yield a startling combination of stark modernity and classical beauty. Visually, this movie is historic. Yet it is also undeniably a movie about people, and about their desperate struggle to beat the odds, to win the war, to go home.

In debating Gravity with friends, I've heard the charge that it plays best on the big screen, and that its visceral impact in home viewings is necessarily diminished. That may be so. Yet I fail to see why the recognition of Gravity's most formidable asset—how its bold, brawny 3-D filmmaking will dazzle and overpower its audience—can somehow make the movie worse, or less consequential. Certainly, the rise of Internet streaming services and the shrinking time gap between theatrical release dates and home-viewing availability are real phenomena that are changing how movies are both made and seen. But this shifting landscape only reinforces Gravity's enduring triumph: how it affirms the novelty of crowding into a theatre with strangers and looking upward with awe. Cuarón has made a lean, efficient, hypnotic film about death and survival. In so doing, he has reminded us just how wondrous it can be to go to the movies.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #4: Blue Is the Warmest Color
The Best Movies of 2013, #5: Captain Phillips
The Best Movies of 2013, #6: 12 Years a Slave
The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

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