Combustible Celluloid Review - Gravity (2013), Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón, Alfonso Cuarón, Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris (voice)
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With: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris (voice)
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language
Running Time: 90
Date: 10/03/2013

Gravity (2013)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Grace in Space

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Forget all of this year's ordinary sci-fi/space movies. Alfonso Cuaron's phenomenal Gravity blows them all away. Unlike ordinary movies, Gravity has a very simple, but very smart story. It has astonishing visual effects, sound design, and music, but it also focuses, first and foremost, on characters.

It's a popcorn movie, with no important themes other than the Triumph of the Human Spirit, but it's so beautifully constructed and executed -- and it feels so bracingly new --that it proudly ranks with the greatest popcorn movies of the past forty years, beginning with Star Wars and including any and all recent favorites.

Like those movies, you may find your jaw dropping, your muscles worn out, your palms sweating, and your brain humming, "how in the world did they do that?"

It begins with a trio of spacewalking astronauts trying to repair the Hubble telescope. Houston reports that some flying debris is headed their way. It crashes into their space shuttle, the Explorer, and sends Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) spinning into space.

Her fellow traveler Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), whose suit has thrusters, goes after her. Together they discover that the Explorer is destroyed, and so they make their way to the next closest thing, a Russian satellite with escape pods.

In the best storytelling tradition, Cuaron and his co-screenwriter (and son) Jonas Cuaron, keep upping the ante, giving our space travelers more and more intensely gripping hurdles to mount.

But as director, Cuaron has used an array of long, unbroken shots to create an astonishing display of zero gravity, where no friction stops or slows down a moving body. As the characters try to grab onto objects while floating by, your entire body will twist and turn, trying to steer them from your seat.

Indeed, this is perhaps the most purely visceral movie experience in decades.

Happily, Cuaron gives rest periods and many moments of pure beauty and wonder. A picture of the Northern Lights from space, a little ball of flame floating in zero gravity, or Bullock refreshing her air intake and floating in a circle for several moments, provide time in which we, too, can breathe.

To that end, even those that did not agree with Bullock's Oscar win for The Blind Side will find her very much worthy of one here.

Her director's last effort was another great science fiction movie, Children of Men, which was borne of ideas. This one celebrates sensation. And it deserves to be one.

Further thoughts: The following is intended as a discussion about the depth and profundity of Gravity. It's intended for people who have seen the movie, as it contains spoilers.

When I first saw Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, it surpassed all my expectations. It was one those exemplary cinema experiences that one can ask for a few times during one lifetime. My first impression was that it was a popcorn movie, a thrill ride, a perfectly constructed entertainment. It was so impeccably paced, shot and edited, and scored with such precision. Best of all, its brand of movie magic was so stunning that I left having no idea how they did it.

All this was enough for me to rank Gravity as my favorite movie of the year, a position that remained unthreatened as the year went on.

Then the great film critic J. Hoberman weighed in with the following: "A survival drama set almost entirely in the unfathomable abyss of outer space, Gravity is something now quite rare -- a truly popular big-budget Hollywood movie with a rich aesthetic pay-off. Genuinely experimental, blatantly predicated on the formal possibilities of film, Gravity is a movie in a tradition that includes D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, Abel Gance's Napoleon, Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, as well as its most obvious precursor, Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Call it blockbuster modernism."

That had me thinking about the movie's experimental nature, about its minimalism and its purity. Like The Birds, it leaves out a lot. It's a space movie with nothing futuristic or fantastic. There are no aliens or teleporters. What's there actually exists. It leaves out "best friends" and other sidekicks. It leaves out alternate viewpoints (i.e. from Earth). It leaves out subplots. It leaves out narration and flashbacks.

Then I saw it a second time, taking my 7 year-old son with me. I guess I was hoping that he might have a transcendent experience like I did, and like I did when I was eight years old seeing Star Wars for the first time. He didn't, though he did enjoy it. (I warned him that I was going to cover his eyes during the scary part -- the dead body -- and I think he was distracted by anticipating this moment. I shouldn't have mentioned it.)

But seeing it a second time broadened and deepened my opinion. I began to see it as a depiction of the dual extremes of humanity. On one end, we're incredibly intrepid creatures, smart, brave, curious, and able to invent amazing things and travel to incredible places. But on the other end, we're incredibly fragile and require simple things like air and heat to survive. Space is not conducive to our survival. At any second, the tiniest event can bring about the destruction of any and all humans. 

Look at that incredible moment with the deployed chute on the Russian space station... the straps seem like the tendrils of some massive sea creature. There's something eerie and mesmerizing about the image, as if it were life and death rolled into one moment. Not to mention the idea of the three stations, from the U.S., Russia, and China; yet the film has no concept of countries. There are some silly clues, such as a ping pong paddle on the Chinese station or chess and vodka on the Russian station, but these things are universal. These stations were all occupied by people, who were born and died. 

The Matt Kowalski character (played by George Clooney) is the ultimate human, the best of humanity. He's life itself. He tells stories all about the people he's met and the things he's done -- and repeats them, as storytellers do -- listens to music, drinks vodka, and tries to break a spacewalking record (he's striving to become better).

The Ryan Stone character -- with her unisex name -- (played by Sandra Bullock) is more like how we are on our regular days. She's scared and sad. On earth, she just drove around, with no destination. She feels lost and nauseous. She wants to be more like Matt; she tries to rescue him using some of the same tactics he used to rescue her. And she howls along with the dog, trying to find a moment of life, but she sees the futility of it and breaks down. She's ready to give up.

Many have complained about her character's backstory of having lost a child, but children and birth and death are key to the movie's cycle. Ryan is shown to be "in utero" in space, and then is "born" when she reaches earth. (There's even a quick image of a frog to suggest evolution in contrast to its discussion of heaven; it has no agendas.) There are baby sounds on the radio when is aboard the Chinese space station. Moreover, when we talk about heaven, as Ryan briefly does, we think of it as being "above" us, or in space. It almost feels like Ryan is near heaven at that moment. And indeed, some critics have discussed that Gravity is a movie without a top or a bottom, without edges. It just seems to go on and on past the frame.

Detractors have simply shrugged off these themes as being simple or shallow, but to me they seem primal... the essence of everything, and quite profound. Being born is a fact, but from that moment on, we're given a large sliding scale. We can be adventurous, or shy. We can be strong or weak. We can be brave or cowardly. We can be happy or sad. And most likely we will be a great many of these things, moving back and forth minute by minute. Stripping away the physical things of daily life, cell phones, parking, money, jobs, spouses, kids, etc. makes this idea somehow more existential. Gravity gives us time to reflect on everything... absolutely everything.

All during awards season, Gravity has received a number of awards, but eventually it has fallen into second place behind 12 Years a Slave, which now looks to be the sure-fire Oscar winner for Best Picture. It strikes me that these two movies are total opposites, and almost impossible to compare.

Whereas Gravity looks like a lightweight entertainment, it actually explores deeply profound themes. And whereas 12 Years a Slave looks like a deeply profound movie, it actually only explores one very simple, immovable, inarguable theme. It's virtually impossible for any two viewers to see it and come away with a different opinion of the events in the movie; they are horrible. No one could possibly defend them. But in Gravity, any viewer, depending on his or her situation in life, may find something deeply personal and deeply affecting in any of the film's moments.

On bad days, I find myself thinking of the film and the feeling of being "untethered," or alone and disconnected, drifting. But on good days, I think of so many other images and feelings of hope and strength. In other words, this movie has now become part of my life. It's a movie I will never get tired of talking about or recommending to people. It's a movie that I want to keep thinking about and keep watching for all time.

Thoughts on the Blu-ray release.

Nearly everything ever written about Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity says that it's a big-screen experience, and only a big-screen experience. This is not any different from just about any other movie ever made. Gone with the Wind was a big-screen experience. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a big-screen experience. So were Star Wars, Die Hard, and Titanic. Heck, Casablanca is a big screen experience. There has been absolutely no reason for people not to enjoy those movies at home, and there's no reason not to enjoy Gravity at home.

The implication, of course, is that Gravity has nothing to offer outside its incredible, ground-breaking visuals, and that those visuals will be completely undetectable at home on a high-def Blu-ray player. Do I have to say anything other than: this is ridiculous?

As I have written, Gravity is a true existential experience that grapples with an astounding array of ideas and emotions, and no screen size should prevent these from coming through. Certainly the incredible achievement of the Warner Home Video team in bringing the movie to Blu-ray will not be a hinderance. The transfer of both audio and video comes as close to perfection as anything I've seen.

My only disappointment is the lack of a commentary track. But we do get an incredible collection of behind-the-scenes features. First is "Gravity: Mission Control," a nine-part documentary that totals about 107 minutes. Then we get five "Shot Breakdowns," totaling about 37 minutes. Then comes Jonas Cuaron's Aningaaq, a short film about the fellow we hear singing on the radio when Dr. Stone is about to give up the ghost. Finally we get a 20-minute documentary, Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space, narrated by Ed Harris.

In 2015, Warner Home Video released a new "Diamond" Blu-ray edition, including the "silent space" version (i.e. without music), which really doesn't work, but that fans may be interested in seeing. The two-disc set contains many of the extras from the previous release, plus three new ones: "Looking to the Stars: The Evolution of Space Films" (42 minutes), "Gravity: The Human Experience" (11 minutes), and a short, funny birthday wish from Bullock to Cuaron.

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