'Gravity' Is A Thrilling Space Odyssey
Published: Sunday, October 6, 2013
Updated: Sunday, October 6, 2013 18:10
In space, “there is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure. No oxygen. Life is impossible.” So reads the opening screen of Alfonso Cuaron’s new thriller, Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. With this ominous proclamation in mind, Gravity is one of the most aesthetically astounding films of recent memory, a testament to the marvels of outer space and an affirmation of the much-maligned 3-D medium in Hollywood. Cuaron, along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, have collaborated to create a backdrop that astounds with its simplicity, sheer immensity, and indescribable beauty. Planet Earth becomes a character unto itself. These aesthetics function not only to hold the viewer’s interest during interludes of little activity (at a brisk running time of 91 minutes, these interludes certainly are brief) but also force each audience member to consider his or her place in the universe. Therein lies the heart of this movie: Gravity is as much about outer space as it is a movie of self-discovery, a journey, alone, into the abyss to find an answer to the question, “What gets me out of bed every day?”
The plot of this film is straightforward: Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a bio-medical engineer embarking on her first space shuttle mission aboard the Explorer. Though technically proficient and an expert in her craft, Stone lacks the experience of someone like the Explorer’s commanding officer, the quick-witted Matthew Kowalski (George Clooney), piloting the final expedition of his career. Despite possessing an abundance of entertaining anecdotes, Kowalski evidently doesn’t believe in jinxes as he continually utters that dreaded phrase, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Sure enough, Kowalski’s karmic “faux pas” doesn’t go unnoticed as mission control (“Houston”) abruptly aborts their mission due to debris from an exploded Russian satellite headed directly for their ship. Unable to wrap up their work and reach the vessel before impact from the debris, Stone becomes dislodged from the ship and sent whirling into the dark nothingness of the Milky Way. What follows is the classic story of a displaced hero journeying home (think The Odyssey, with home being a Chinese space station that possesses the last escape pod in the universe).
The special effects of this movie, undoubtedly its greatest strength, were also the reason the film nearly wasn’t made. Cuaron, Lubezki, and Webber set out with a vision for Gravity that couldn’t be realized through traditional film-making methods. After four years in limbo, James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) finally paved the way for the CGI techniques the trio decided to implement. Incredibly, for each space-walking scene, Webber reveals, “We decided to shoot [the actors’] faces and create everything else digitally, which was quite a difficult decision.” The problem which arises becomes one of lighting: after filming, they had to go back and appropriately light both Clooney and Bullock’s faces to match the all-digital environment into which they had been thrust, accounting for the position of the sun and Earth in the scene and the effects that had on lighting. Tedious as that was, the finished product is worth the effort. The image of Clooney, in a space suit, set against a backdrop of the Ganges River, evokes a visceral response as one not only feels but sees the insignificance of man in the grand scheme of the universe.
The actors behind these digitally-lighted faces deserve praise. Bullock delivers a career-defining performance, eclipsing even her Oscar-winning role in 2010’s The Blind Side. Her face conveys earnestness rooted in the loss of her four-year-old daughter back home in Illinois. She deftly expresses sheer terror, a surprisingly difficult emotion to act believably, and her Ryan Stone is a wholly likeable protagonist. Clooney is cast perfectly as a sage veteran of space who imparts wisdom in a stern, fatherly manner. Their chemistry proves yet another bright spot in a movie full of them, stars notwithstanding.
Gravity grips you from the onset with its special effects, and Clooney and Bullock ensure that you will remain emotionally invested for every second of the 91 minutes. Delivering a message as powerful as the movie itself is visually stunning, Gravity is perhaps the best film of this year.