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Still images will not do this film justice.

Gravity is thus far this year’s purest answer to the question “what do movies have left up their sleeves?”. Not only is Alfonso Cuaron’s (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien) film the closest thing movies get to simulating the actual experience of a roller coaster ride, for all that hack reviewers like to use that image to describe them, it is also a sophisticated and satisfying emotional journey. It is very rare in the current climate to see the resources and technical artistry manifest in Gravity used for something other than a superhero movie or something with franchise potential behind it. Something that appeals to the nerdy types Hollywood is so constantly chasing after nowadays.

Gravity is something else. It does appeal to the nerds with its authentic (not realistic) portrayal of humans in space and the precariousness of even minor space missions. It uses a few science fiction doodads, a prototype jet thruster and helmet-based augmented reality, and one big hard science fiction scenario: the Kessler Syndrome. Which is to say, a storm of human-made space debris cascading around our orbit and destroying everything in its path as it the domino effect grows and grows. This is the name for a scenario described by Donald J. Kessler, a NASA scientist, in 1978. It never happened, but it still could happen. This is science fiction not because it requires some futuristic or otherworldly event, but because the scenario’s predictive power is based completely on science but it still hasn’t happened which puts Gravity in the realm of speculation. Exactly where science and fiction, when used together, lives.

Though it’s apparent in trailers and marketing that Gravity is a thriller or a sort of intimate disaster film, it’s got major horror chops. Like many great horror or stressful films, it also pulls itself up by the spaceboots to become triumphant and life-affirming in a way many movies try, but few movies ever earn. Gravity is a film whose first apparent quality will be in the realm of technical proficiency. Everyone will be able to appreciate how beautiful, believable, and unique the film is on that level. What surprised me was that the cathartic emotional story as well as the narrative and structural tightness of the film were equal to the technical stuff so the message I want to send about this movie is not to overlook those elements while marveling at shots of the Earth or at Cuaron’s ridiculously masterful opening shot, an extended sequence with no cuts that totally brings you into the environment and mood of the film.

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The film is very economic with its storytelling and structure.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) invented a new kind of imaging hardware for use in hospitals. NASA recruited her to install the hardware in Hubble because it has space research applications. In six months she is trained and prepared and then sent on mission. We join her and Captain Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) at the tail end of the mission. We can immediately see how nervous Stone is, how disoriented and out of her comfort zone. That’s all we need to know about her for the first act of the film.

That act is mostly an unbroken continuous moving shot that gives us a sense of the Explorer shuttle, the attached Hubble telescope, and various small parameters of the crew’s equipment. About twenty minutes in, disaster strikes as the Kessler Syndrome gets kicked off by Russians destroying one of their own satellites. This sends a cascade of orbital debris around the Earth every 90 minutes, with the first burst proving catastrophic for Stone, Kowalski, and the other crew of the Explorer. They are the sole survivors.

The 90-minute clock is something I hope people catch. This film is almost exactly 90 minutes long. This is important not because it happens in real-time. It doesn’t. It’s important because it establishes a time scale between the audience’s time and Stone’s. The Kessler storm becomes a revolving event that signals the end of each act of the film. Structurally, it works as a way of splitting the film up into sections in an organic and clean way which always keeps tension in the back of our minds even as Stone gets a few minutes here and there to catch her breath. It’s as effective a cinematic “clock” as the van falling into the river in Inception. It is such a clever and intelligent skeleton on which to build the film that the realization of it enriches an understanding of other choices, especially narrative ones, made for the film.

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Clooney is a genuine pleasure in this film. As good as he ever was.

Some are pointing out that the movie takes almost thirty minutes before really developing Stone as a character. Up until that point, the characterization is much stronger for Kowalski. This is because Stone is stoic, afraid, and completely out of her element until Kowalski rescues her and forces her to talk. This should be apparent to people as a deliberate narrative choice. Kowalski chatters as a coping mechanism. While space is his element, he’s not a robot. Chattering is how he deals with his fear and distracts it so he can get the job done. It’s a beautiful bit of character work from both Cuaron (and his son, Jonas, who co-wrote the film) and Clooney. Clooney is so charming and so up for this that it might appear to people that he’s just planning to charm his way to survival. Watch for how he ignores Stone’s outbursts of hopelessness (“I’m not gonna make it, I’m slowing you down”) and focuses on keeping her talking.

Later in the film, when Kowalski is lost, Stone eventually adopts his behavior. This is partly why some of Bullock’s dialogue is a bit broad and sounds silly. The kind of things people say, and how they say it, when they have no idea what they’re saying but they need to say something. Bullock totally sells this. She also sells the emotional, overwrought self-talk with aplomb. You put this stuff in a lesser actor’s hands and the audience will turn on it, call it cheesy, and it’ll mar a movie that is otherwise on all cylinders.

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It is eerie how young she looks again. Not a day over 30, I swear.

Sandra Bullock is not an actor I have a lot of respect for, usually, not because of her skills (she has em) but because of her safe choices and transparent greed for demographic approval. This year, it’s like she decided to have fun and be a good actress again. Between The Heat and Gravity, I’m turning back into the guy who would have said more than ten years ago that Sandra Bullock was his favorite actress.

It’s such a great performance and it has to be. The real meat of Gravity isn’t zero-G fire, or watching shit explode with disconcerting silence, but experiencing an existential moment. Stone has very little will to live. As she tells Matt, she lost her young daughter in an absurd accident. As she is telling us basically from the moment she first appears on screen, she’s alone and rudderless. Her only constant is her work. It makes sense that she would be willing to go to space. Not out of excitement for it, or the adventure, but because of her work. The mitigating nature of the risks, that which retards the natural adventurous nature of space travel as we tend to imagine it, is the danger. Why would that stop Stone in an abstract sense? When she’s up there, different story. As she confesses, mostly to herself but also to a Chinese man who’s tapped into the radio feed she’s using, she knows she’s going to die but she’s still afraid. That realization coupled with  a very daring and cheeky sequence where Matt seems to return out of all realm of plausibility, forces Stone to confront her existential situation where the choice is as simple as: live or die. The use of birth imagery throughout the film reinforces this.

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When she finally makes the choice, Stone becomes a heroine.

I would like to see, some years down the road, Dr. Ryan Stone becoming a cinematic giant on par with Ellen Ripley. She’s one of the greatest heroines in the history of film. She may be one of the greatest in the history of fiction. Some people will roll their eyes, distracted from this very basic idea by hang-ups about Bullock, about the movie, or about something. What’s important to recognize is that roles like this one are very rarely afforded to women. It probably says something about all the dues Bullock has paid with her career that she’s a no-brainer for the role. Her casting did not surprise me at all. She’s a huge box office draw and she’s a good actress, maybe a great one, when she wants to be. This is the performance of a career but it also is the character of a lifetime. Not that Stone or her story are expressly feminist. That’s what’s so great about it. Stone is the hero not because she’s a woman or because it’s Sandra Bullock playing her, but because Stone is the rookie through which we can experience the events with more or less fresh eyes and the tension felt by someone who doesn’t always know what they’re doing. The only nod Cuaron gives to the unlikelihood of Stone being a woman is a joke about her name being a “weird name for a girl”. In what is almost a quip, and something I felt was talking directly to the audience, Stone replies that her father “wanted a boy”. I absolutely believe that someone, somewhere, complained about Stone being a woman. Maybe it was Alfonso Cuaron, and the line made it in as a joke between father and son. Maybe it was the suits. Either way, it’s tacit acknowledgment of a risk that isn’t a risk at all and shouldn’t be thought of that way by anyone.

But let’s back up a touch. Why do I think Stone is so great? There’s obviously the emotional journey she goes on, with its cathartic ending, and just the incidentalism of being along with her for that. That’s the easy stuff, though. The stuff you have to pay attention to is the intelligence with which she meets the challenge of survival. At its heart, Gravity is a “human against nature” story. Nature, in this case, just happens to transcend the usual Earthbound conceptual constraints we place on it. In this struggle, Stone is challenged in every way possible. Emotionally, psychologically, physically, mentally, etc. Even her luck, something as intangible as that, becomes a tangible thing as we watch her defy the odds. Having Stone overcome not only her fear, but her impossible environment, is as easy as just having it happen. At least in theory. In actuality, it’s a tough sell. You have to continuously reinforce the challenge while making us believe in her.

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Again and again, we watch Stone defy impossible odds.

The Stone we meet and hang out with in the first Act of the film is not a Stone that makes this easy. This is one of the very real gambles this movie makes, gambles which belie what some are describing as an overall “safe” or “accessible” film set up that way to compromise with the technical ambitions so that it can make its money back. Well, that’s all nonsense. Cuaron has made a film that challenges more than our stomachs or nerves. It’s eminently rewarding viewing just as a story.

There are many techniques used to achieve this, not all of them “safe” ones. The music is perfectly matched to the film, subtle and moody when shit is bad, and soaring and triumphant in the final moments when the audience is totally invested in the Stone that is emerging from the crucible of the horror we’ve gone through with her. That’s the easy stuff again. Some other techniques, including the use of first-person footage, are more risky. People don’t know what to do with first-person footage. They think it’s a video game thing. In this film, it is used to reinforce the sensations, such as they are, of what Ryan Stone is experiencing. They are meant as a bridging mechanism, a way for us to access the confines of a space station or the chaotic jungle gym of the outside of a space station.

Another gamble is having the only other visible character, Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) never show his face to the audience except as a blasted ruin after coming into contact with shrapnel. Beside that horror show ruin of a human face, we see a picture of Shariff floating around, attached to his suit. We see a happy guy with his family. Before that, Shariff’s few lines and one or two moments in the film set up that reveal. This was a happy guy, with a loving family, who enjoyed being in space. It’s a tragedy told to the audience with Hemingway style economy. This is a gamble because some people in the audience won’t care. It’ll just be a dead body in space, like the dead bodies still trapped inside the Explorer (used for one of the film’s rare gotchya horror moments). But this would be missing out on what Cuaron is trying to do.

Some are complaining that he’s a throwaway character. That making him Indian and having him sing is just a pat on the head for minority audiences. I can sort of see that. I mean, the two leads are white folks. But things get more complicated when you consider how carefully Shariff’s death is treated, and the real impact (both sad and horrifying) that it has in the film. It also gets more complicated when you consider that Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron are not white folks. But people who complain about this sort of thing very rarely want their narrative complicated and I must acknowledge that the one “minority” actor in the film dies five minutes in without us ever seeing his face. But in a movie with only a few characters, most of them offscreen (Ed Harris does the mission control voice), should we really read Shariff’s ethnicity as patronizing? Consider that Gravity is a very expensive and ambitious film without franchise potential and probably without a demographic-busting, asses-in-seats hook. Getting bankable stars to lead up the film is one way to secure its financial prospects. Getting people like Clooney and Bullock may read, to the neophyte, as cynical… but there are reasons why they are bankable in the first place. Again, it’s much more complicated than the “Hollywood loves India, but not Indians” message some are using to criticize the film. I’m not really sure that there aren’t grounds for criticism, by the way. All I know is that it’s more complicated in this case than it first appears.

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This is one of those luck moments.

Gravity has pulled ahead of a few other 2013 masterpieces (Spring Breakers, Upstream Color, etc) to fill the top spot of the year for me. At least so far. The year isn’t over and there are more pedigreed films to come. I’m not sure what kind of traction it even really has to mention what my top film of the year is when the year is still in progress. It may give you some idea about the esteem with which I hold Gravity. I’ve seen it twice, by the way. That’s why I didn’t write my review last week when it premiered. I even saw it early, the first time, and could have had a review out opening day. Until someone pays me to do this, I don’t really worry about getting ahead of stuff like that, so I mention all this now to reinforce the fact that I have given this one some thought.

One of the nice things about a movie like this is that it appears to be selectively targeted. “Space movies” are supposed to be for a select demographic, if you ask certain people. Especially the people who bankrolled this movie. As if outing that whole ideology as the silliness it is, Gravity has something for just about everyone. Even kids could watch this film, I know I would have loved it around the same time I was discovering Jurassic Park or Event Horizon. Albeit, I got to watch “adult” films much younger than most. There’s some coarse language and a few horrific images, but I think kids could handle the extended tension of Gravity.

In fact, it may be worthwhile for younger people, tweens maybe, to see this. Space is coming back into focus as one of the great adventures of human history. People are noting the gutting of NASA and the loss of peaceful, generational projects that actually seek to leap humans ahead of our current context. Guys like Neil Degrasse Tyson have got famous from espousing the popular opinion that this science shit needs to come back in a big way. Though it’s a horror movie and a disaster movie that gives you some reasons why space isn’t the best place for humans, there’s an undercurrent of awe at both the project of space travel and the temerity of human space travelers running through the film. It’s arguable whether it is intentionally trying to inspire people to remember that space is out there and it’s scary but also amazing. It may actually be saying “sorry Bill Nye but let’s stay on Earth”. Either way, its authenticity and imagery have the potential to inspire a generation of people with the idealism of the endeavor, and the surpassing beauty and awe-inspiring weight of our tiny place in the universe.

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