10.15.2013

Gravity (2013)


Gravity (2013)

Far from home, stranded, beyond reach of aid. It's a scenario that has played out in storytelling since the first person wandered away from the campfire, repeating in cave paintings, oratory, fables to frighten children, religious tracts, down through the ages and into film. All that changes is the setting. The quality of the story comes down to the empathy we feel for the person cast adrift. Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock, with George Clooney, is this story.


In film these kinds of stories can be utterly engrossing. Life of Pi, Castaway and 127 Hours are recent examples with earthbound settings. Gravity, like 2001 and Apollo 13, takes the story into the far reaches of space. In the unforgiving environment devoid of air, water, food, shelter and warmth, the situation is at once simple and dire. Debris from an exploded satellite destroys their space shuttle and then every possible source of escape for astronauts Stone (Bullock) and Kowalski (Clooney) until all hope of rescue fades.

As a work of fiction, Gravity is the antithesis of reality-inspired Apollo 13. It focuses on the individual drive to stay alive, not the group effort to bring the few home. Stone's only support is quickly taken away. She is a specialist working on only one piece of the Hubble telescope, and has only a passing knowledge of other parts of the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle and other pieces of the equipment she'll need to stay alive. She's no fool, but she's no highly trained space geek either. For the vast majority of the movie, Stone is the only player, all alone against the backdrop of Earth or space. Hers is the only voice, the only face. She's the protagonist, and the antagonist is the inexorable laws of physics and nature. See? Classic storytelling, 150 miles or so, straight up.

All I can say is thank goodness this movie was made outside the Hollywood star machine. With one purposeful, lingering exception, there are few camera "star shots" that would have turned a taut, 90-minute film about a space castaway into a Sandra Bullock Oscar-buzz tour de force. Unlike watching, for example, The Iron Lady, when multiple times I thought "Meryl Streep is amazing and I can't take my eyes off of her," I was visually engrossed by the full screen for the entirety of Gravity. Every corner of the screen  is visually engaging, not just Bullock. However, Bullock's blend of fragility and braininess was an excellent casting choice, and her and Clooney's star power allowed the word of mouth to get the movie (made on a shoestring for a special effects based picture these days) off the ground with the fans. Check the movie poster--two of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood and neither are on it. This movie is about the story and the setting, not the personalities.

If this movie has one flaw, it's that it tells no story beyond its classic premise. This is human versus nature. And so it was in Life in Pi, but Life of Pi also told a story of faith, asked questions about the different sides of human belief. Castaway looked at how a human stays sane in solitude. 127 Hours brought in the factor of guilt over the consequences of one's recklessness. 2001 examined foundation myths and the nature of evolution. Those movies are as much as twice the length of the trim, rapid-paced Gravity, however. When Gravity does pause to consider deeper questions, it is only briefly at the very end when Stone must confront her final solution. That is not to say that Stone is unmotivated. Her final solution is based in the tragedy she faced earlier in her life, a universal loss that could make any person, male or female, give in to despair.

Not to belabor the obvious, but it's also inspiring that a story of such universal simplicity with a bell-like simplicity at its emotional core was cast for a woman as the lead. Men usually get these parts, and little boys get to see a relatable "everyman" in these roles as they create their own dreams and hopes for themselves. Now little girls get to see an "everywoman" (i.e. not Ripley or Janeway or Ivanova) in space--may they dream and hope for futures as astronauts and scientists as a result.

For me, the 90 minutes flew by. See it on the big screen, it's well worth it. The visuals are beautiful, the plot is engaging. How will she get from where she is to where she needs to be? How did they film that? And as with Apollo 13, there is the marvel that people do go into space in tin cans run by computers designed at about the same time as Atari game systems, and with instructions printed in three-ring binders. 

There are surprises and the clock is ticking. The action is intense, the score is understated and nothing goes boom, yet the under 13 crowd might find it pretty scary because it all seems very realistic. Neil deGrasse Tyson is right, though, there are flaws in the science. But even he liked it.  Still thinking about it? Check out the Frivolous Views review.

One-Line Summary Gravity (2013): Gripping special effects in a taut castaway tale perfectly represented by Sandra Bullock's fragility and brains.
What's It Worth? Gravity (2013): Earth and space are stunning, as is the care taken with reflections and shades of black, so a big screen viewing is heartily recommended. I saw it in 2D. Big Screen.
Watch it Again? Gravity (2013):   Once the dominoes nature of the plot is known some of the element of suspense is lost. I would watch again for the interest in the special effects and joy in Bullock's subtle performance. probably