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Monday, October 7, 2013

Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity: A Movie that will Sweep You Off Your Feet

Gravity, Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Think back to when you were a kid.  Your parents told you that they were taking you to a movie.  This is way back, like when you were so young that you barely knew what a movie was.  And they told you they were going to take you to doesn't matter, any movie will do.  I'm talking about that point when you were so young, you went to the theater and sat in awe staring at the wonders of that giant screen--it looked bigger than a football field at this point in your life--and everything you saw then was a miracle.  Towering images burned their way into your young brain and, though you didn't know it then, they would stick there on the pulsating wall of your mind's eye for the next three or four decades.  Have you got the picture?  Do you remember this?  Do you realize that is the reason we continue to go to the movies, again and again, despite the fact that time and time again we are disappointed by the overall impression made by dozens and dozens of mediocre movies filmed simply to sell popcorn?

But we never give up.  We try again.  Just one more.  And the next one after that.

For once, a modern-day director has finally managed to satisfy that longing.  There have been rare occasions when I feel I've nearly touched that sacred peak where entertainment is engulfed by the sheer awe and wonder of the world as seen through the eyes of a child.  Most of the time, in the midst of this yearning, I'm taken out of the moment by what is now too common in movies--a jarring political statement, a crass cheap-shot played for laughs, or a nod to the bitter, cynical world that we all discovered is awaiting us on the other side of youth.  Any one of these little devils wreaks havoc with our ability to sit back and just be engulfed in wonderment.

Alfonso Cuarón, Director of Gravity
Alfonso Cuarón has been able to tap into that child-like need for astonishment with the help of his son, Jonás Cuarón.  Together, they have written a story that is full of humanity, set in the cold vacuum of space.  That would have been enough, just to tell a story about the remarkable astronauts who orbit above us without much attention anymore.  But if they had, they would have ended up creating a film that we've seen before.  A little conflict between the astronauts, a longing for home, a moment of courage or desperation.  It would have been moving, a nice tribute to all of those who have ever strapped themselves to a rocket.  Once we left the dark confines of the theater, we would have returned to our normal lives without giving it much more thought.

With today's overabundance of CGI, as witnessed by the throngs of underwhelmed theater-goers who sat through monstrous action-epics like Man of Steel and White House Down this summer, it would have been easy for the Cuaróns to rely on the dazzle of CGI to carry the story.  Filmed in 3D, there would have been plenty of chances to startle the audience with the studio's whiz-bang, now-you-see-it-now-you-flinch usual bag of tricks.  Maybe use the over-used shaky-cam to ratchet up the nerves.  Today's filmmakers have a fairly limited supply of gimmicks and regularly overindulge in them.  

Cuarón does not.

I know what you're thinking.  You want me to get on with the review.  Forget the mystical ramblings and just write about the movie.  But that is nearly impossible, since this movie is too perfect to give much of it away.  For this same reason the trailer was astonishingly short.  If they put out a longer trailer than that first teaser trailer I never saw it, and I'm glad I didn't.  So don't get impatient.  And don't be disappointed.  I'm not going to tell you about the movie.  But I am telling you about it when I wax poetic.  But if you insist, I'll say what I can about the film without spoiling it.

Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in Gravity
It is nice to see Sandra Bullock return to her roots, playing the damsel-in-distress as she did the first time she won our hearts as that wildcat bus-driver in Speed.  And just as she played off Keanu Reeves so well in that movie, always looking to him to save her, yet surprising us with her own inner strength, in Gravity she does much the same thing with George Clooney.  However, as her world shatters around her in the terror of zero gravity, something more than inner strength shines through.  She does not transform into a superhero who curses the gods and overpowers the fates.  Instead, as the terror rises around her, suffocating her in that black expanse above our world, Bullock allows us to see a very human, traumatized, yet trained astronaut fight off the inertia of her inevitable doom.

George Clooney, who I believe has been slowly ingesting little bits of Cary Grant Elixer, and increasing the dosage lately, turns in a fine performance as the one man you would want to depend on in a crisis.  He is believable, and has perfectly engineered chemistry with Bulluck.  As the film spun out of control, I was glad to have Clooney there as an anchor.  A nice touch for this casting includes the voice of Ed Harris at mission control.  It gives us a sense of continuity, since Harris was in the same role in the spectacular film Apollo 13.

But never mind all that.  Let's get back to Cuarón and his creation of something...amazing.  Never before, including the awe-inspiring 2001: A Space Odyssey, has a director been able to pack so much heavy atmosphere into the vacuum of space.  Usually, when I give in and watch a 3D movie, I'm distracted by the many different things going on across the screen.  But in Gravity, I was so sucked into this world-outside-a-world that I remained fixated on the movie from beginning to end.  My daughter, who attended the film with me, asked later if something was wrong.  I usually make comments throughout a film; this time I barely said a word.  It might have been because I didn't want to waste the oxygen in the theater.  After all, oxygen levels become terrifyingly critical.  Trust me.

Mostly, though, I think it was just that little kid in me, staring in awe at the screen, as a vision filled with miracles, nuts and bolts, and the need to grab hold of anything captured my imagination for 90 minutes.  That little voice that said "finally, it's here, this is why we go to the movies."

Don't miss your chance to see this on the big screen, in 3D.  Just be sure you find something to hold onto.  But if you don't, it won't matter, because the father and son team of Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón will grab hold of you and never let go.  


  1. You're actually the second person I know who has talked about Gravity in such glowing terms within the last few days. I nodded politely the first time. This time I find my imagination being fired by hope. I too remember going to the movies as a child, and I remember that sense of being transported.

    I rarely go to the movies any more, but I think I may be bribing the Daughter to come with me to see this one. :)

    1. I don't often wax this enthusiastically about a movie. I hope you two enjoy it if you decide to go.