Sunday, October 13, 2013

Watching Gravity

Sandra Bullock holds on for dear life in a spectacular visual experience of watching the International Space Station be decimated by flying debris in space.  One of Gravity's "wow" moments.
Note: Some minor spoiler's below but, believe me, knowing a little bit about what happens in this film does not diminish from its powerful visual experience.

"Alfonso CuarĂ³n’s Gravity is incontestable evidence for the worth if not outright necessity of the theatrical experience. It is a breathtaking visual spectacle, yet deeply rooted in viewer empathy and character, offering not just incredible sights and sounds but a story worth telling. It is stirring, terrifying, jaw-dropping, and finally genuinely moving. It offers the kind of theoretically game-changing theatrical experience that absolutely demands theatrical viewing on the biggest 3D IMAX screen you can find. It’s slightly too early to say whether or not Gravity is the best film of 2013. But I cannot imagine a more fantastic and thrilling movie going experience." - Forbes Magazine, September 23

I planned to see Gravity anyway, but numerous positive reviews such as the one in Forbes only solidified my decision to see the full effect of the film in IMAX 3D. Yesterday I treated my daughter and her boyfriend to the film. Last weekend the film broke all records for a movie premiere in October. We met our 'Dillo friend Mark near Atlanta for an early lunch and a matinee. We saw the film in the same theater where I watched Avatar, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises. Gravity compares with Avatar in that it is primarily in a visual experience. The narrative is there but it is secondary to effect of the CGI on the mind's eye. Gravity sucks your eye in and your mind follows. The image itself is as much a character in the film as those portrayed by Sandra Bullock or George Clooney.

Gravity is a 91-minute film that takes place is semi-real time. That is, the film covers around 3-4 hours of "real" time, so it skips forward in time in places but it feels continuous. Long stretches of the film are in real time, which is part of what makes the film feel so realistic. There are a number of extended takes with no cutaways, no edits, where the camera merely watches the action, sometimes combining long dolly and pan shots with impressive digitized precision. In these moments Gravity draws you in and often wows you with shots like looking down upon the aurora borealis as seen 370 miles above the curvature of the Earth or by witnessing space debris rip apart the International Space Station.

Gravity begins peacefully enough, in the wonder of space, with a routine mission servicing the Hubble Space Telescope.  The hyper-real Earth serves as a splendid backdrop for many extended shots throughout the film.
The film begins with a Space Shuttle maintenance mission on the Hubble Space Telescope. So the viewer gets two iconic spacecraft images from the beginning. The mission progresses for 10-15 minutes into the film with mission control in Houston talking back and forth with the astronauts as they work on an electronic board that is not functioning properly. The first thing to be lost is communications with the Mission Control. From this point on, Clooney and Bullock refer to the ground as "Houston in the Blind" instead of just "Houston". Soon, for reasons explained in the movie, satellite space debris tears through the mission before it can be aborted, killing the entire crew except for Bullock and Clooney.

The two survivors then manage to propel themselves to the (luckily) nearby International Space Station, where apparently the crew has already left in one of the two Soyuz return capsules docked at the station. The station received some damage from the initial passage of debris but is mostly operational. The other Soyuz craft is functional but its landing shoot has been accidentally deployed and entangled in the station infrastructure, probably as collateral damage from passage of the debris field. This is an example of how the realistic nature of the narrative progresses.

The velocity and altitude of the debris field allows the astronauts to calculate that the field orbits the Earth every 90 minutes. So, about an hour into it, the film experiences the second passage of the field, this is why I call it semi-real time. This time it smashes the International Space Station. The explosive debris created by dozens of impacts in the weightlessness and directionlessness of space is a spectacle that rivals Avatar in wow factor. But, whereas Avatar created this fantastic reality that wowed you, Gravity's appeal is that attempts to replicate concrete reality in minute detail.  Same CGI mastery and complexity, different objectives, same eye-popping affect.  Every single piece is seen in pristine definition against the beautifully detailed Earth whose features you can make out (if you know geography) several hundred miles below.

Gravity in IMAX 3D is truly a theatrical experience; it is what going to the movies (as opposed to watching on your home theater) is all about. First of all, I always appreciate the sound quality of an IMAX theater. You feel the bass deep in your chest and yet you can make out every whisper. A marvelous audio system. Seeing the various spacecraft/orbiters set against the Earth for extended shots grips the eye with reality. The sun and stars set against the infinite darkness of space feels vast. But, at the other extreme, sometimes the film goes inside the spacecraft and inside the astronaut's helmet, literally placing the viewer into the heads-up display on the helmet.

In this way, the image becomes intimate. There is a strong human element to the film in the form Bullock's rich depth of character brought out both alone and in conversation with Clooney. I think Bullock's performance is a superb one and she has a lot of material to work with. But even so, I'm not sure the film succeeds in making the viewer feel human intimacy to the level of intensity of the image itself. It might take another viewing (at a regular theater this time) to fully consider whether the narrative material matches the visuals.

There is a metaphorical aspect to the film that, while not as profound as 2001, is perhaps more human than Kubrick's brilliant film. Gravity is no 2001 in terms of being mind-blowing but it does speak to the human condition. Bullock floats in a fetal position inside the space station (in a very hot tight pair of sports shorts on her amazing 40-something physique) with a tether floating behind her like an umbilical cord. Later, she crawls out of water onto a shoreline, staggers to her feet and walks, a nod to the evolution of biped mammals.

Here is a woman who is scarred by life, who has everything going against her, who is facing a seemingly impossible survival situation, who is terrified but courageous, intelligent yet emotional. Bullock becomes Everyman in this film, her situation is a metaphor for the difficulties all of us face living on planet Earth. Our safety and security and peace of mind has been ruptured by debris (political, economic, environmental, physical) beyond our control. Here is where Bullock's portrayal possibly connects with us most intimately.

Fundamentally, this metaphorical aspect to Gravity, along with our empathy for Bullock's character, makes it an inspiring film. Gravity's message is "OK, you're in this shit. What are you going to do about it?" I can not think of anything more relevant to our times. Whereas in 2001 the inspired message is that it is time to move to the next stage in human evolution, in Gravity the message is much more practical - how can you make it through all these challenges with your flawed and damaged life?

Gravity is easily an 8, not quite a 9, but it is tough to be definitive after only one viewing. It is a ground-breaking visual experience with solid performances and an inspirational undertone but really, with the exception of the incredible images which I extravagantly enjoyed in IMAX, the narrative element and inspirational side have been done before. And, try as they might, these elements don't live up to the power of the image itself, which is overwhelming, but that is a good thing nonetheless.

Sandra Bullock in weightlessness.  She slowly wraps herself into a fetal position as the tether behind her floats like an umbilical cord in a womb.  Part of the film's metaphorical aspect.
Late note: Gravity maintained momentum in its second weekend by grossing an additional $44.3 million.  It remained the number one movie at the box office.

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