Thursday, October 3, 2013

Movie Review: Visual Effects Give 'Gravity' Life

It's true. In space no one can hear you scream, especially in 'Gravity.'   (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Space movies are all the same. It's a story about humans fighting aliens (Alien, Aliens, Starship Troopers), technology (2001: A Space Odyssey, Moon) or themselves (Solaris). "Gravity" falls into the latter category while being propelled by the second. The film is not heavy on story but the seat-shaking music and dazzling visual effects more than make up for it.

While conducting a space mission on the Explorer in the open nothingness of space, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are abruptly torn apart when debris from a satellite comes crashing into the space shuttle. With a damaged communications network to Houston, it's established that they must get to the International Space Station to survive and call home. Now the real story begins- how much willpower does a person have to survive on their own?

In theory, this really is a basic concept in any space movie, and "Gravity" is no different. As the movie sputters along between the quiet and the hectic this resonating cliche of a concept doesn't change. I mean, what else is one supposed to do in space, farm?

"Gravity" is special in that it was wonderful visual effects. The shots of the earth with the sun beaming down on it and the heavy shadows it leaves on the floating space shuttles are dazzling. It's like when you see "2001: A Space Odyssey" for the first time and you're starstruck. These wondrous images paint the screen like a shifting screensavers at the theater for the first 10-15 minutes of the movie. That's really all this movie is, a visual effects buffet. The story is more substantial than what you would see in "Transformers" but not at the groundbreaking level of "2001."

Director Alfnso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki once again use great manipulation in "Gravity". Their work on the futuristic thriller "Children of Men" in 2006 was highly praised for their long, almost seemless takes that included scenes with a car ambush, child birth, and walking through an active war zone. 

Here, we have extended shots at the very beginning, floating around the astronauts as they work and then have 3D debris hurled at us. The camera has a sense of lifelessness in this movie like it's making us the third character. We join the characters as they're being hurled around, being mangled as the debris whizzes by.

The power of the film, visual effects aside, comes from the heartfelt performance of Bullock, whose emotional spectrum goes all over the place from subtle happiness to rage. It's hard to imagine how one would act if they were stuck in space, but I think she nailed it. Unlike her subtle Oscar-winning performance in "The Blind Side," Bullock is more physically and emotionally drained and it shows. Her performance makes up for Clooney's pointless existence with awful attempts at comedic relieft. In short, he played himself with a spacesuit on.

Clooney was the worst thing to happen to this movie.

If you were to map out "Gravity's" intensity on a line graph, it would curve up and down on the Y-axis with a good amount of space between occurrences on the X-axis, especially near the end of the film. But when it soars, it soars! In the numerous collision scenes in the film it's not the sound that wakes you up (because there is no sound in space in it was shot that way), but the music. It serves as the only audio track in the film at these moments and it more than makes up for the silence.

The ambient music is so overly loud that it will shake you and create tension that would didn't think music alone could do. It's not bad music at all, it's just so different that with the electronic and percussion booms it sounds like sound effects that were perfectly integrated to a standard action film score. They had to make up for the otherwise silent airborne collisions somehow, and this was the best way to do it.

At a mere 91 minutes long (and maybe 85 of that is without credits) with only two people in the movie, it's a different type of action movie. It's not about the action, it's about the consequences of the action. What do we do now? Who's going to help? How we cope with accidents and loss is the foundation of being human, it's how we deal with this that makes us different. "Gravity" is a beautiful tale of looking deep inside ourselves for the answers and at the same time entertaining us like movies used to.

Rating: B+

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