Sunday, October 27, 2013
Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013)
Visually arresting and soulfully cathartic, a groundbreaking work that appeals to film school students, geeks of the gaming generation, and moviegoing normals alike. Essential.
For years now—I'd say, around since when Crash (more like "Trash"!) won Best Picture for 2005—I've maintained that, among U.S. institutions, the Academy Awards rank just below the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the American political duopoly as objects of most misplaced esteem. That said, even as I groan over awards bestowed upon such, in my opinion, undeserving recipients as Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and, well, pretty much every Best Picture winner of the last fifteen years, the truth is, most years, I have far stronger feelings about what films shouldn't win than about what films should. The Dark Knight in 2008 was probably the last movie I felt actually got robbed. The years since have offered films that I've liked and even loved as much as or more than The Dark Knight, but not films I've felt strongly inclined to champion as the best of the year. This year, however, I feel strongly, even without seeing any of the other contenders, that Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity deserves it. It is the greatest film I have seen not only this year but in the last few years.
The movie is visually breathtaking. I'll probably never personally be able to go up on a spacewalk, yet I suspect the panoramic shots of Gravity eclipse all previous space films in conveying that beauty and majesty that astronauts speak of when observing the universe from up there. The awe-inspiring sense of scale and perspective, the weightlessness, the tranquility—the film captures them all to carry audiences to a place that feels both real yet as none on Earth, and Gravity consequently feels like a truly new experience in film, the sort of thing we like to say we go to the movies for, but which, in reality, are rarely encountered and rarely expected.
The film contains few cutaways, with the opening sequence, from the beginning through to the story's first calamity of many, presented as a single mesmerizing take, including tracking shots where the camera, like everything else in space, operates free of gravity, curving weightlessly through three dimensions of space. Of course, we know it's not actually one continuous take, as so many of the shots, too impossible to be otherwise, must be largely computer-generated. Nevertheless, the presentation lends the film a persistent immediacy. George Clooney is always charming, and Sandra Bullock gives a strong lead performance, but it's this gripping sense of immediacy that finally helps us to identify with and care about these people about whom we don't know very much, and who maybe aren't objectively especially interesting characters. The perspective even regularly glides into first-person to take us more explicitly into the protagonist's head, still without ever cutting away to a different shot.
The story is simple and accessible. It's a chain reaction of disasters, with little in the way of preamble. Things start to go wrong when, according to the disembodied voice of Ed Harris as Mission Control, the Russians launch a missile strike on an old satellite. At first, I wanted a little more detail on that strike—what exactly the Russians' plan was, why the characters were given such short notice, why it went so catastrophically wrong—but then I realized that, from the characters' perspective, it was really quite moot, and so it didn't much matter to me either. I did, for some reason, anticipate that the situation on the ground, once they finally touched down, would be dire and war-torn, but that was probably just me projecting my personal pessimism about world politics. What makes the idea of space travel attractive to me is precisely how it takes one far above our imaginary lines on maps and renders it all small and kind of shameful.
Gravity's story doesn't really have a political dimension, and the journey is no less deep and thematically rich an experience for it. Even as the action transpires where most people will never get the chance to venture, the narrative is cathartic in a universally relatable way—primal yet profound, and inspiring, but not one of those short-term feel-good stories to be shared at the water cooler or on Facebook, but which we quickly forget and move on from because, at the end of the day, they don't affect the price of soap. It doesn't ask us to give a damn or two about some situation "over there," but instead kindles that inner resilience to get through our hardest days or even just the unrelenting everyday of each of our lives, and to come to terms with that which is beyond our control and beyond ourselves. It speaks to the contradiction of the human condition, that, though our lives be ultimately finite and insignificant in the grand scheme, nevertheless we must fight as hard as we are able for as much time as we have on this earth.
The only choice I might question is the use of stereo sound when handling some of the dialogue. At one point, Clooney's character was transmitting from off-screen, and the audio for his dialogue came from the left side of the theater—a case of surround sound calling attention to itself. When I thought about it, it seemed curious to me, considering that any sound the characters heard in space would just have been coming to them through their helmets, that the film should have made such efforts not only to have dialogue coming from discernibly different directions but also seemingly different distances. But maybe the audio receivers inside the spacesuits really are that sophisticated. I wouldn't know. In any case, that's a nitpick at worst, and it hardly takes away from what is, in my opinion, the best picture of 2013, and the best film I've seen in years.