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'Gravity': Alfonso Cuaron's Magical Storytelling

by Caryn James
October 2, 2013 11:03 AM
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With Sandra Bullock free-floating and somersaulting head-over-heels through space, Gravity comes loaded with visual dazzle and technical wizardry. But its greatest stunt is the way Alfonso Cuaron takes a flat premise   -- a medical researcher barely trained as an astronaut, floating alone for nearly 90 minutes of screen time -- and makes it an enthralling thriller. Bullock plays Ryan Stone, stranded when the space shuttle explodes, but the peril she's in resembles that of an old-fashioned movie heroine tied to a train track -- only in this 21st-century scenario she has to save herself. As he carries us from one near-fatal crisis to another, Cuaron's story-telling becomes the film's best, most magical special effect.

 Yes, George Clooney is in the film too, for a while. He plays the shuttle's commander, Matt Kowalski, whose personality is as unmistakably Clooney-esque as his voice: a serious, competent man with a sardonic, comic veneer. He plays off that other space-disaster movie when he says, without any hint of trouble ahead,  "Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission." Then Russian space debris starts flying, the shuttle is destroyed, communication with Earth severed, and Matt's reassuring voice talks a panicked Ryan through some emergency maneuvers to try to get home -- until he drifts away and out of the movie.  

From then on, Gravity gives a visceral charge to the metaphorical sense of being lost and alone in the universe. Ryan can see small spots of light glimmering in the darkness too far away to offer any comfort. There is no one to talk to except herself. Yet Gravity makes this outlandish situation oddly easy to relate to: it's anyone's nightmare of hearing a job interviewer speak a foreign language, or arriving for a presentation unprepared. It's the terror of: I don't know how to get out of this disaster!   

 The film probably looks a lot better than your nightmares, though. Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer who has worked on several films with Cuaron and Terrence Malick, achieves some spectacular effects, with deep blacks and eerie reflections of light, and the 3D is never intrusive.  If you've read anything about this film, you probably know about the unbroken 17-minute opening shot and the gizmos Lubezki and Cuaron used: a box filled with thousands of LED lights that allowed them to film Bullock doing those somersaults, robotic cameras. All of that draws us deeper into the story instead of overwhelming it.  

 It's Bullock, of course, who has to make us believe, and her down-to-earth naturalness has never been used better. She finds just the right combination of stubborn determination, and terror that she doesn't know what she's doing and has just hours to live.

The extravagant praise the film has already gotten makes it sound more perfectly made than it is. It's good that the dialogue is minimal, because what's there, in the screenplay by Cuaron and his son Jonas Cuaron, is often tired or obvious. When Matt asks what Ryan likes about space, she answers, "The silence. I could get used to it."  As if we don't know she'll have her chance. Her character has a history (given away in the trailer) that is meant to be heart wrenching, but merely adds a layer of sentimental goo, which a film this good shouldn't need. And the heavy music cues that tell us what to feel and when become annoying.

 Cuaron is brilliant at reimagining genres, though, giving them fresh styles and emotional warmth. He directed the best of the Harry Potters, The Prisoner of Azkaban, as well as the dystopian Children of Men (still his deepest and best film). Whatever its forgivable flaws, in Gravity he makes outer space seem intimate. He is some kind of wizard.

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