Gravity: Just breathe
Gravity's 98-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes at this writing is appropriate.
WARNING: Review may contain mild spoilers. Click away now if that's of concern. Thanks.
It isn't a perfect film, but it is as transporting as everyone says, worth seeing twice — once in IMAX/3D, to appreciate the beautiful and terrifying collaboration of director Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki, and once "regular," to appreciate Sandra Bullock.
I didn't see it on an IMAX screen (doing so would have made me irretrievably ill); in fact, I saw it at the Pavilion in Park Slope, a theater notorious for forcing the film-going experience to swim upstream in a salty river, flecked with a thousand paper cuts of environmental irritation and institutional ineptitude. (Much like that metaphor.) That Gravity took me by the elbows and held me in the story for 91 minutes, even at the Pavilion, is a testament to the film. Even at the Pavilion, Cuarón and Lubezki's experience of space, its claustrophobic vastness, is a fantastic achievement, and the 2014 Oscars will mark the first time I root actively in the sound categories. The use of silence as implacable negative space, the switching between roaring terror and mute impotence…even the tinny, irritating crawl of music at the beginning has its purpose (not least, along with Ed Harris as the wry voice of Mission Control, to recall Apollo 13 and its floating, slowing cassette recorder). Breathing is nearly a character in Gravity: doing it, timing it, arranging for it.
It's Bullock who brings all of it home. The emptiness and the great distances need that object in the foreground to give them meaning, and to an extent, the Ryan Stone character is that object, a fact Bullock incorporates into a performance that is completely, consistently believable. As I said, it's not a perfect film, and the script is a little bit overcome with itself at times: tears lift off Stone's face and array themselves before her in zero gravity as she prepares, both angrily and almost thankfully, to die, and it's a liiiittle cheesy, both emotionally and from a showoffy-FX standpoint. Stone just didn't need a dead child to make her more real. For the most part, though, the writing of that keeps it tight; Stone wears it with a credible scientist's "just one of those things" attitude. But she also has a sequence in which she's punching buttons and instructing Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, a note-perfect space cowboy) to give a message to her daughter about a shoe while capital-R Rising To The Occasion, and when you think about how many other ways an actor could play those lines, how very thin the tightrope is and how deep the chasms of schmaltz and Con Air on either side, it's particularly impressive work.
Bullock's existing Oscar doesn't bother me too much — she's a hard worker; I endorse her happiness — but her obit should now have a new lede, let's put it that way. Cuarón and Lubezki have done glorious work here, conveying an almost documentary sense of how disconcerting and difficult (and at the same time freeing and exciting) weightlessness is, what it's like to try to dwell in that state. But it's nothing without Bullock, lying on the beach, pressed down by her ordeal and also by the very air of Earth. The camera gives you part of it; Bullock gives you the rest, in a relatable portrayal — everything we liked about Annie in Speed, dyed in the close-up wisdom of experience and grief — that's a lot harder than it looks.
When she pulls herself up to standing at last, glorying in her full height, the shot positions her almost like the obelisk in 2001, a myth to admire. And it should.
Tags: Alfonso Cuarón Ed Harris Emmanuel Lubezki George Clooney Gravity Sandra Bullock