Sunday, October 13, 2013


One of the points that are rarely made about modern filmmaking is that thanks to advanced computer technology, Hollywood finally has the opportunities to create movies unlike anything we've ever seen before.  In today's world the real landmarks of major special effects films seem to have mostly passed.  Something as dull as forgettable as "Elysium" or even that crappy remake of "Total Recall" would have blown the minds of the entire world if it were made just in 1999, let alone 1989 or in the silent era.  Special effects have spoiled us, to the point that a major CG blockbuster is as exhausted as a romantic comedy or a crime thriller.  We've seen the superheros kick ass before in ridiculous stunts, we've seen the landmarks explode, we've seen the massive space battles.  The tools are there to make simply incredible stuff, and yet most directors are perfectly fine releasing "Transformers".  So you forget between the mediocrity of one failed summer adventure after another that CG effects really are the tools of wonder.  And if used smartly to make something new, they can make movies that really do suck you right in.

One problem I have lately is after four years of doing this blog* I don't really watch the same way as everybody else does.  Once upon a time when I saw a movie it was just a movie, I let myself go, I could simply let the director and actors tell me a story.  Now my movie watching experience is more of a dialog.  When I'm seeing a movie, my brain is already mapping out things that worked and things that didn't work, and often talking right back to the director.  "Really, we're gonna open with a killer doll, James Wan?"  "Oh, the doll lets the evil come into the ghost hunters' house, not bad, James Wan, nicely developed."  And if the movie is really really bad and very boring, like "Elysium", I'm already writing the review I'm going to post here while watching the movie.  However, "Gravity" was not a dialog.  I was as silent and non-judgmental as I've been for a movie in years.

"Gravity" is - in a word - fantastic.  There is no doubt in my mind that this was one of the best movies of the entire year, or any year.  This is a simple, yet brilliant movie.  Director Alfonso Cuaron has, for the very first time in filmmaking history, really recreated the freakish environment of outer space and ironically for the film's title, zero gravity.  With that he's gone and made a survival disaster movie with lost astronauts jumping from station to station trying to get back home - in what is truly the most isolated and dangerous location human beings have ever experienced.  And he does with this a clever touch, not merely making a thrill ride but also a quiet contemplative poem about the sublimity of outer space and mankind's own connection to our planet.  This is as good as movie making gets.

The suspense for "Gravity" is really unparalleled amongst anything you will see this year.  This is the kind of movie that makes you just sit in your seat and watch without comment either vocally or mentally for ninety minutes.  Its so gripping that I didn't even know how much time had passed when the movie was over.  If I had bought popcorn** I might have forgotten to eat it.  Cheap ad copy on the back of a DVD case will call a Michael Bay movie "a thriller ride" or "a pulse-pounding roller coaster", but "Gravity" really does feel like a super intense special experience.  You are right there with stars, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as they are tumbled and thrown into the merciless hands of psychics and inertia as they float around in the darkest expanses of reality.

A good half of this movie takes place in a space walk, with long tracking shots that last twenty minutes or longer without cuts.  This is of course only possible because of advanced computer technology basically making most of this film a photo-realistic CG cartoon - not to belittle what Alfonso Cuaron has done here - so you can finally spin around with the actors as they launch themselves into really exciting explosions and situations.  Even then, the camera still follows Sandra Bullock for a considerable amount of time while she is on her own within space stations (done with the help of massive expensive spinning rigs, real wonders of modern technology).  Cuaron previously made "Children of Men", one of the best Science Fiction movies of the last decade, where he pulled off this same trick.  He managed to orchestrate an entire battle in the decaying ruins of a Great Britain with almost no cuts at all.  And in that movie, as it does here, it really throws you right in with the actors.  You get that sense of following them around right in the grips of action because the camera never stops rolling.  Compare to a Michael Bay movie where the editor cannot stop chopping up the footage quickly enough, and somehow the long tracking shots wind up being a million times more effective and stunning.

A really shocking moment comes early in "Gravity" when a huge explosion takes place all around the actors.  And its completely silent.  You hear nothing of it.  For years we've all heard how space movies are completely inaccurate because there is no sound in space, and Hollywood has been fine to keep up a diegetic fantasy by adding explosion effects when there is an explosion.  Cuaron keeps to the reality and doesn't add any sound, and you'd think instinctively that this would make the movie worse.  But it doesn't.  Its so unnatural and weird that it only adds to the drama.  There is all this stuff coming at you, and you can't even hear it, that makes you even more paranoid.  Its really great stuff.

There are countless movies that happen to take place in outer space, but after "Gravity" your "Armageddon" and your "Space Cowboys" feel like the trappings of adorable Hollywood fantasy.  Because space is a really scary place, and "Gravity" is here to remind us of it.  When Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star, he was sitting comfortably in a chair in a pilot suit, the fantasy of the film turning a space battle into a 1940s dogfight.  That's not to say Star Wars doesn't have a place, its just that "Gravity" is doing something new by showing us really hard science fiction.  At one point Sandra Bullock is untethered and flying outward without any grip of any kind, spinning endlessly into the void.  Frankly, at that point in real life, you are as doomed as any person has ever been.  You could dance on the Sun and not be any less dead.  Luckily "Gravity" gets her out of that situation because there are still many minutes to go, but it reminds us:  this is space.  The definite dimensions of our cushy Earthbound existence do not apply, all there is little bubbles of technology that will keep you alive.  And those bubbles are very very fragile.  In space exploration we are fighting against an endless oblivion that surrounds us in all directions, life cannot exist out there, and all of our space stations and space craft only barely let us brush against that oblivion.  If those bubbles break, you are very very fucked

Alfonso Cuaron could have simply been done right there and released "Gravity" to what would have been very high praise.  But he goes even further.  The story is extremely simple with only three actors appearing on screen and only a few other voices there to appear.  Sandra Bullock spends most of the movie entirely on her own, gripping her way through massively claustrophobic innards of space stations and space craft, talking only to herself and a Houston Mission Control that she doesn't even know can hear her.  There are incredibly emotional scenes that pop in and unfortunately I can't even describe what they are due to spoilers.  More impressively Sandra Bullock manages to carry the movie even after George Clooney steps off the stage, when he is playing his role at 200% super cool.  This is Clooney at his Cloony-est.

So 'go see "Gravity"' is the conclusion you need to draw right now.  Solid acting. solid cinematography, brilliant use of the natural madness that is space, and high, high drama.  We would be a very spoiled people if every movie could be as fresh and invigorating and impressive as "Gravity".  To complain slightly, I thought a few shots were mildly pretentious, and in order for the story to work the writers really had to fudge some of the details***.  I thought it was distracting that Ed Harris was Mission Control, his same role from "Apollo 13".  But beyond that, this was pretty much as much entertainment as you can get in a movie theater right now.  Go see it, and go see it in IMAX 3D.

* Jesus, has it been that long??

** I usually don't for movies these days because I'm trying to lose weight, and two to four helpings of movie theater popcorn and soda a week cannot be beneficial for the human condition.

*** SPOILERS:  For example, it just so happens that the shuttle space mission they're on is within a hundred kilometers of the International Space Station.  And that is relatively close to a Chinese space station that hasn't yet been created.  Because space is a really really big place, I have no idea why all of these things would be in the same orbital path, and so close together.  If you had two objects within 100 kilometers, the space agencies would freak out about the chance of collision, there's no need to get that close.  Which is why the main cause of the film's tension - debris from exploding satellites crashing into each other in a massive dangerous chain reaction never really can happen because we're smart enough not to put the satellites that close, and even if something like that were to happen, we would have enough forewarning to get our space boys out of there with more time than thirty seconds.  Again, space is really big, 500 miles per hour doesn't mean much up there.  There was probably no way in hell that Sandra Bullock was able to jump from her capsule to the Chinese Space Station using nothing but timing, luck, and WALL-E's fire extinguisher trick.  You're talking hard core actual rocket science there, counting to three won't help you.

Also, Sandra Bullock's hair didn't float when she was in the ISS.  That bothered me.

Niel deGrass Tyson can probably tell us ten thousand more inaccuracies that happened based on the physics.  But for the most part, the filmmakers really did their homework this time.

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