Monday, April 6, 2015

Alfonso Cuaron's GRAVITY

Before digging deep into the details of the film, a little note on the format of Alfonso Cuaron's science-fiction thriller (notice full 'science' here, not sci-fi, or even worse SyFy, it is one of those real attempts, for the most part, to bring real space science into the mix).

This almost never happens for me, but I've seen Gravity twice now, and after seeing it the first time in regular good old "flat" 2D, I thought without any second thought "If I see this again, I'd really like to see it in 3D."  Sometimes a film will make me curious enough, mostly because it was shot *in* the format, to see what the director and photographer has one in the format - Scorsese with Hugo, Ang Lee with Life of Pi, and Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams are the 'high-art' examples, though sometimes a Drive Angry pops out as a guilty pleasure.  There's the hope going in that, 'hey, maybe they will do something with it, push the artistic envelope and find a new way to use the tool that is 3D for good use.  Of course the ideal for the filmmakers is an "immersive experience", which is something redundant to me since the idea of a good film is that it already IS an immersive experience in 2D.

But with Alfonso Cuaron's film, what he did that is so intriguing is to use his environment - outer space, with zero gravity, yet with things like shrapnel that can go through the (lack of) atmosphere at bullet-time speed - to emphasize objects going around the characters, in front of them, and that spatial matters are all unnatural.   Emmanuel Lubezki, who has made his own sort of "3D" movies in his free-floating work with Terence Malick, has also pulled off something of a cinematographic miracle with a lot of these shots: they go around actors and these set pieces in ways that look so unlikely.

A shot will start in one spot, an actor comes into view after being a speck, then the shot continues giving us attention to details - a screw could get loose into the rest of space until it's grabbed at just the right moment.  The power in how it's all shot, especially in its startling opening shot that lasts, I think, about eight or nine minutes, is that Cuaron through his direction and Lubezki through how he lights and moves his camera makes us believe this IS out in space.

Documentary though it may not be - this isn't shot exactly like, say, Cuaron's previous film Children of Men, where the tactic was to put us at times into the war-time scenario of the dystopian United Kingdom.  Here it's a lot smoother, taking a bit of a cue, at least in the first two-thirds, from the slow-moving suspense of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  When George Clooney's Matt Kowalski and Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone have to go to from the wreckage of their destroyed space station to a Russian satellite, it's not in one quick flash.  They have to go deliberately, with Stone losing her oxygen bit by bit and Kowalski just trying with some basic humanity to keep her alive.

And yet aside from some style, it's not quite 2001, either.  The problem perhaps then comes in with it still being, after the auteurist experience of a director fully in control of his faculties and strengths at making this outer space feel alive and quietly, deadly threatening, a Hollywood movie.  It's got these big stars, especially Clooney who is playing a variation on being George Clooney (maybe like Clooney meets the cockier of astronauts-in-training from The Right Stuff), and Sandra Bullock is like an older, still rattled take on a character she played in Speed - she's not even technically an "astronaut", which puts her a bit more into the audience empathy corner despite her training.  Thus the dialog, from Cuaron and his son Jonas, comes off just occasionally as showy.

On the other hand, that sort of dialog from Kowalski, where he pontificates stories heard by ground control many times (and hey, speaking of cliches, it's his last mission by the way!), may be cracking jokes just as the basic need to soften a situation.  They both know, Stone and Kowalski, how desperate and grim the situation is.  Having now seen the film twice, I grew to like Clooney more on another round, and could see more of the psychology behind his decisions... that is, until, frankly, he is used as a plot prop.

I may have not gotten into the basic story, but really there's only so much you need to know about the set-up: while astronauts Clooney and Bullock are repairing a satellite/installing something Dr. Stone only knows about, another satellite got destroyed or other and the debris, which is incredibly dangerous out in space, comes at them and destroys their station, kills a couple of other crew members, and now the remaining two must survive.  In a sense it could be a story set on a mountain with a glacier-fall as the "villain", or out at sea in the middle of nowhere.  At the same time the genius of the premise and its setting is that the filmmakers use the beauty as a cover for how horrible it can be.  "I hate space!" Dr. Stone exclaims at one point.  It's a deceptive place.

And for the first two-thirds, as our two stars do what they can to survive until, sadly, only Stone is left, it's very gripping, moment-to-moment stuff, the proverbial "good thrill-ride" to quote Stanley Kubrick' "proverbial good science fiction movie" re: 2001.  And all the way up until a certain point, when Dr. Stone is finally on a pod that can get her to another station but has a moment of full failure, it's fully gripping stuff.  Even a bit that should be just throwaway character stuff - who Stone was back on Earth, a dead daughter, nothing totally to live for except, we assume, her science - is compelling in the moment.

What gets me to not love it all the way through is a sort of story turn that happens at about the twenty minute mark, a character "returns" to give some vital plot info, and our remaining hero is able to save herself.  This is where it started to feel contrived, the character talks just too much to herself (that sort of "I'll-say-this-and-that-to-myself" talk), and there's even an unintentional(?) reference to a space-move that was previously seen in WALL-E involving a fire extinguisher.  A final shot further elongates things as if to make a point about, um, evolution?  MEIN WORLD!  I CAN WALK!

And yet... I am still intrigued by this section of the film for the reason, seeing it again, that it all could be something the filmmakers may or may not have intended: the old 'Is it in my head' deal.  There's something about this final 15-20 minute stretch that almost has an air of intentional unbelievability to it, it's a bit more rushed than what we have seen before, and the character's triumphs start piling on.  Naturally, this is the sort of stuff that keeps a film like Gravity a triumph for audiences, because the character overcomes conflicts and obstacles and all that jazz.  But there's another way to look at it, I think, starting from when Stone receives her crucial plot info and can steer herself back to safety that this is when it's all a dream, or even the after-life.  What if Earth is a place on Heaven, to reverse the pop song?

This adds another layer that still doesn't make the film perfect, and it is still, for me, flawed in its touches of storytelling that don't quite gel with everything else - a moment of 2001 homage involving an embryonic Star Child (!?) also has an air of self-indulgence to it.  Yet these may be just nitpicks in the scheme of things: what the director does, his crew, and especially Bullock who commands the screen in such a way throughout that is not over-insistent but gets her emotional turmoil across with depth, warmth, and a character that just clicks for what we want to see in a reluctant hero, is outstanding work of popular entertainment AND art, something that inspires the senses, thrills us, and could even be longer if it wasn't already so tightly constructed.

Its imperfections may make it endure MORE than if it was a super-well-oiled work of full-blown Hollywood machinery, instead of an outsider working within it.

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