Dissecting Gravity: Space Race For Your Life

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It’s been years of waiting for some of us to lay eyes on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and the end result is an experience you often haven’t had in a theater before.

Following the events of a catastrophic disaster in space, two astronauts struggle to survive. One is the country’s most veteran astronaut and the other is on her first mission for a special assignment to repair the Hubble telescope. Things don’t go well and we follow the duo from one disaster to another as they try to get back to Earth.

***Spoiler Warning From Here On Out***

Zac: I am one of those people that has been eagerly awaiting this film through multiple false starts and being in the theater to finally lay eyes on it was an exciting experience. Thankfully, the film rarely disappointed me and featured some of the most insane and amazing cinematography that I have ever seen.

I hadn’t seen a single trailer for this film, barely a snippet of material, so the story was unknown to me besides all hell breaks loose. Watching everything unfold is often heart stopping, pulse pounding, jaw dropping and everything in between and when the film is working best it is working better than most anything you can see in the theater.

Lauren:  Zac, you’ll actually be happy to know that the trailers put out for this (at least those that I’ve seen) give little away past what you yourself said you know going in.  In a way, it is like an introduction to the introduction of the film, setting you up to know what you’re going to be witnessing for the next 1.5+ hours.  And what that is is something incredibly beautiful, though I will say that I actually wasn’t a fan of the beginning.  It starts off with this basic explanation of space, with the one thing catching my eye being the reminder that sound doesn’t carry.  This is nothing new for anyone who knows even just a little about space, but movies tend to ignore this fact to make events far more exciting.  And after this reminder, I actually thought that Gravity was then going to pull a big no no.

Here’s my minor gripe:  after these words, the film starts out slowly orbiting around Earth, with the chatter of Sandra Bullock and her crew in space slowly building in volume.  My mind would not let go of the idea that we shouldn’t be able to hear this, and I was getting very irritated seconds into the movie, and I was worried about what was to come, disappointment already bleeding into my experience.  This was going to be a big problem for me, and I still feel like the introduction should have been handled differently, but eventually I came to turn with this because I realized that the audio was handled through the perspective of the astronauts.  In other words, imagine that you are in a suit out there playing witness to what is happening, or if you want to snuggle up with Bullock in her suit as well then think of it that way (which was easy when the camera would play her perspective); the point is, the audio ended up being one of my favorite things about the film because of how intimate it feels.  I’m never going to go to space, I have no illusions or desires about that, but I felt like I was there with Gravity.

Zac: The sense of place and immersion in the film is nearly unparalleled by any other films. When that satellite shrapnel starts tearing things apart you feel like you are in the middle of all of that destruction. I was horrified at what was unfolding in these moments and Cuarón’s film making doesn’t let you escape. Cuarón’s camera, with the big time support of Emmanuel Lubezki, effortlessly glides around in moments of peace and terror and almost every shot in the film is as gorgeous as the mind can imagine. Many of the technical pieces of the film are pushing the boundaries of what we have seen in a film and for a picture that was set almost entirely in space I rarely ever was taken out by the effects.

Lauren:  The visual effects were so good, in fact, that I would throw all my weight behind this film to get at least a nomination for an Oscar in this category.  Now I know my weight isn’t much, but it’s behind Gravity darn it!  (And largely because of it… eh heh physics joke).

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Zac:  There are a couple of nitpicks from the behind the camera side of things. The score might have been a little too abrasive, the scene in the ISS had a couple of wonky CG moments and the transitions from CG Sandy to the real one felt a tad off as well, but regardless of these complaints the set pieces demand to be seen on the biggest screen possible. They will strike awe and terror into your heart.

Lauren:  No joke.  Back to the shrapnel scenes: we all knew it was coming back around because the watch was counting down, but then in the background you think you see something go by.  But maybe it was nothing.  And then maybe something else goes by.  And then you realize what is happening and it gets intense fast.

And then there is all the camera spinning.  One of the things that I appreciated about the Dead Space series was that they allowed you to orient the character you were playing right way up in concern to the platforms of your surroundings.  I would use this tool often, so much so that it would just be something I would do in the back of my mind, and I never realized how much I appreciated being able to align myself in this game than when watching Gravity. The camera is more often than not constantly in motion to keep the audience slightly uneasy, furthering the experience.  Honestly, I feel bad for people with motion sickness.

Long story short, when Bullock hits solid ground back on Earth, there is a huge amount of relief for more reasons than just her survival.  We survived.

One last thing before I toss it back since you mentioned time on the ISS: When Bullock first takes her suit off there and is resting, what the heck was up with that image?  She looked like a baby with umbilical cords coming out of her, and it creeped me out.  I don’t care what the imagery stands for.  Stop it!

Zac: I loved that shot!

More on Bullock and the ISS, anytime she went inside actually I think the film loses a bit of the magic that it has in the cold confines of space. This isn’t just because a couple of the shots look funky, her escape from the ISS is awesome regardless, but I almost wish Cuarón didn’t give us as many moments to breathe. The sequences out in space get you on such a movie high that you just want to get back to it; this led to my attention fluttering on a couple of occasions.

I also think if there had been a bit more character development for Bullock’s Ryan that these scenes might have been that more gripping. Bullock is very good, I bought her terror, composure, sadness; and this is easily the most demanding film she’s ever been in, and she nails it. But Ryan’s past and trauma surrounding it aren’t given enough screen time for me to connect with what she is dealing with. Clooney’s character I got completely from the first shot of the film. Granted there might not be as much depth to him, but still I was able to connect with him the instant he pops up on screen. I knew where he was coming from. So while I couldn’t get into Ryan’s emotional “final” moments when she gives up like the film wanted me to, I was instantly ecstatic when the figment Clooney entered the picture as part of her delusion. Actually, I appreciated the film’s acknowledgment of her going crazy and almost wish they had run with it a bit more, would have spiced up Ryan’s story a little bit.

For a second there, in that phantom Clooney enters the shuttle scene, I thought the film was going to have the balls to kill Bullock and replace her with an entirely new character to end the film. That would have been something, but not going there would never be something I hold against Gravity.

Lauren: I actually thought the same thing before Clooney took his helmet off because I couldn’t really see his face. But I was even more excited when it was him. Not that I believed he was alive (though in the back of my mind I tried to talk down the logic and say that movie magic makes anything possible. Maybe he orbited the whole planet just like the debris!), but this was a perfect way to breathe new life into a movie that really only had repetitive steps when you break it down (not that I was bored with it, but my dad saw it differently). This was definitely my favorite scene of the film, and I loved that he was the push she needed to keep fighting. Bullock’s character surviving it all is highly impossible, but at this point, with all she’s been through, she just has to.  If I want something far less miraculous then I’ll go with Buried or The Descent, but I just couldn’t take that again with this. So do it for Clooney!

Zac: Clooney was fantastic in the film and gave it a much needed sense of humor that never felt forced. They also gave him one of the best goodbyes (when he really dies) you could ask for, exiting with class and even a laugh or two. I could watch him scoot around in that jet pack for hours.

The film also has a couple of fun homages for attentive viewers. Ed Harris as Mission Control was comforting, a Ben Gardner head in the boat jump scare homage from Jaws and a lot of the Bullock solo scenes had a real Contact vibe.

Walking out of the theater I was letting some of my quibbles with Ryan’s characterization pull me down a little bit, but when writing this up I only really wanted to talk about the great stuff. I think the last third of the film doesn’t quite live up to first hour, I could have done without the WALL·E extinguisher bit and the almost drowning pile on, but these are small complaints for one of the most thrilling movie experiences you are likely to ever have.

Cuarón has crafted a technical masterpiece whose visceral thrills more than make up for any narrative shortcomings. I may not have been as emotionally invested with Bullock’s safe arrival as the film hoped, but I was terrified along with her nearly every leap of her journey; an odd conundrum. One of the most exciting films you will ever see in the theater, Gravity is not to be missed.

Zac and Lauren’s Final Grade: A-

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