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Weightlessness and Atmosphere: Why the First Reviews of 'Gravity' are Glowing

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Criticwire August 28, 2013 at 1:26PM

For those eager to see exactly how Alfonso Cuarón's return to the director's chair is winning over critics, we've assembled the early returns from Venice.
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Gravity

Ask any group of eager cinephiles about anticipated upcoming 2013 releases and, most likely, "Gravity" would be at or near the top. Director Alfonso Cuarón's return to movie screens began early this morning in Italy as critics at the Venice Film Festival got the precious first-look privilege.

From the initial indications, it seems as though the anticipation that preceded the film's premiere (and even before the first trailer surfaced) is warranted. Critics are using a level of hyperbole usually reserved for the classics, some even starting off their reviews using superlatives and "ever" in the same sentence.

Part parable, part space ballet, part technological masterclass? We'll have to wait until October 4th to see if "Gravity" has the same effect outside of the festival setting. But until then, there's something comforting about the lack of disappointment.

Below, we've gathered some initial impressions:

Reviews

For those afraid that the technical wizardry that populated Cuarón's previous films would somehow disappear here, fear no more, writes Justin Chang at Variety:

"Cuaron, in another remarkable collaboration with longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber (“Children of Men”), has pushed the relevant technologies to their limits in order to tell this story with the sort of impeccable verisimilitude and spellbinding visual clarity it requires. The long, intricate tracking shots the three devised for the earlier film were a mere warm-up act for what they unleash here, as is clear from the stunningly choreographed opening sequence — an unbroken, roughly 13-minute long take that plunges us immediately into the deafening silence of space. Specifically, we are in the atmospheric layer known as the thermosphere, the Earth’s massive form looming large in the widescreen frame as an orbiting shuttle gradually cruises into focus."

Guy Lodge echoes that sentiment at Hitfix, explaining that the 3D visuals even prompt a visceral reaction:

"Cuarón’s loyal, invaluable cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki seems drugged – or perhaps purely entranced – by its possibilities, gliding and weaving across seemingly impracticable distances with a deliberate fluidity that no previous screen depiction of weightlessness (whether in outer space or the subconscious hotel suites of Christopher Nolan’s mind) has come close to approximating. (You’d also have to go back to Wim Wenders’ “Pina” to find a film that demands this compellingly to be made and seen in 3D, and even that’s in a different ballpark.) When I stood up as the final credit rolled, I don’t mind admitting that I immediately had to sit down again, a Bambi-like wobble coursing through my limbs, as if I'd just re-encountered gravity myself."

The Guardian's Xan Brooks explains that, despite the movie star pedigree between the film's central couple, the real marvel on display is the backdrop of the universe:

"Maybe it's fitting that a film about two lonely figures adrift in outer-space should itself be dominated by the cosmos. Clooney and Bullock give dogged, decent performances here, but they are inevitably shouting to be heard; utterly at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Cuaron takes the two stars and stitches them against a vast canvas of roaring sound design and terrifying 3D visuals."

But the visuals don't come at the expense of the script. Oliver Lyttelton describes at The Playlist that there's certainly a plot here:

"'Gravity' is very much an action adventure film, one very occasionally more meditative than most, but it’s unashamed in its desire to thrill you. And thrill you it certainly does. It’s visceral, knuckle-chewingly tense stuff, with Cuaron and his co-writer and son Jonas expertly packing obstacle packed on top of obstacle in the way of the astronauts’ return home, without losing touch of humanity or humor."

As the central characters face imminent death, the film leans heavily on imagery relating to birth and new life. It's a thematic strain that worked for David Jenkins of Little White Lies, but the same might not be said for everyone:

"Yet — and some may find this side of the film a mite on-the-nose — Gravity operates as a bold (possibly even eccentric) and majestically rendered parable on the wonders of creation, with a very specific focus on the details of reproduction. Imagery of umbilical chords, foetal positions, wombs and characters triumphantly surfacing from the amniotic river sit surprisingly comfortably against a visual backdrop of decaying space stations and an infinite shroud of nothingness."
Sandra Bullock becomes the film's center, and her performance is an effective anchor amidst the potential cosmic chaos, writes John Bleasdale of CineVue:
"Bullock's character is the far less capable Dr. Ryan Stone, a fish out of water who's already struggling with nausea as she completes an early and relatively easy part of the mission. Later, with the oxygen running out and hope ever more slender, the revelations concerning her back-story risk a dip into mawkishness, but Bullock plays the role with utter conviction and the dynamism of the plot soon thankfully has us moving again. Surprisingly, Bullock is at her best when she channels her inner Ripley - something Cuarón explicitly references - and gets down to the business of staying alive."
The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy explains that the film is a worthy addition to (if not poster child for) for the recent string of human vs. nature adversity tales. It's setting enhances both the clarity and the personal connection:
"But no monsters pop out baring scary teeth, only adverse circumstances of such extremity that they place Gravity alongside Life of Pi and J.C. Chandor's contemporaneous 'All Is Lost' as a survival tale requiring a heroically concentrated form of human resilience. Those two films involve the peril of oceans rather than space, but then 'Gravity,' with its characters all suited up and their heads enclosed in helmets, sometimes almost seems like it's taking place under water -- except that you can see more clearly."

Ultimately, even though the settings and circumstances are completely different, the film works best as a companion piece to Cuarón’s previous film, argues The Telegraph's Robbie Collin:

"'Gravity' operates as a companion piece to Cuarón’s last film, 'Children of Men,' which played at Venice seven years ago. In that film, humanity had suddenly lost the ability to reproduce, and the result was global meltdown. But here, Cuarón is telling a different but related story of terror and mortality and hope. With nothingness pressing in on all sides, in a place where the grip of someone else’s hand is all that keeps you from the void, life really does seem like a miracle."

This article is related to: Venice Film Festival, Gravity


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