Sunday, October 6, 2013
Alphonso Cuaron’s gorgeous and thrilling “Gravity” is just a tiny, tiny bit disappointing. The movie is less a story than a situation and all the astounding special effects can’t quite disguise the fact that the picture is a little bit thin, ultimately less than meets the eye. But, of course, what meets the eye is so spectacular that the film’s vertiginous beauty becomes its own strongest argument. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, mostly confined in bulky space suits, are astronauts repairing a satellite in orbit six-hundred kilometers above the earth. A “missile strike” by the Russians blows apart another orbiting satellite and the debris, like a cloud of glistening hornets, sweeps through space and destroys the craft on which our protagonists are laboring. The remainder of the film illustrates the astronauts’ struggle to survive, an ordeal that involves great amounts of wild gyrations whirling around other satellites badly damaged by the asteroid-like swarms of space debris churning through the void. I admire the film’s single-minded and abstract purity -- there are no subplots, no marking time before the catastrophe hurtles the characters into danger, no extraneous characters or scenes. The picture is a raw “man against nature” epic with outer space as the most awful and intimidating kind of nature imaginable. Cuaron is interested in his characters’ courage and stoicism in facing death and he focuses on the imaginative devices that his protagonists employ to revivify their flagging spirits and overcome their fear. (The film has one shocking twist that can’t be revealed without damaging a viewer’s enjoyment of the picture -- and that twist, in turn, is exploited in another sequence, the best in the film from a dramatic perspective, that I won’t describe in this note.) The opening sequence, said to be more than 12 minutes of a continuous take, sets a high standard for the rest of the picture -- it’s the most audacious and beautiful scene in the film, a hyperkinetic, wild ballet that completely disabuses the viewer of any notion of “up” or “down”, and there is really nothing in the rest of the film as experimental and wonderful as this first sequence. The movie is not without flaws: one crucial scene, involving the two astronauts becoming separated, is completely unclear -- it isn’t obvious what force is driving Clooney’s character away from the frightened and nauseated Bullock. Oddly enough, the last minute, showing landscapes on earth, contains the least believable images in the film -- space looks more real than the strange green denuded mountains around the ocean lagoon where the film ends and I wonder if those landscapes weren’t entirely digital, composed inside a computer like the rest of the movie. One sequence involving Bullock shedding tears that spin and rotate around her head like tiny, glistening pearls is disfigured, I think, by Cuaron’s decision to pull focus and emphasize in close-up one of those weightless tears -- it’s a rare misstep, a bit of vulgar over-emphasis that, I think, insults the audience’s intelligence. But most of the film is visually flawless -- flames in a burning satellite have a wispy ghostlike quality, pale corpses rotate like melancholy planets in a ruptured space station and one dead man has his face neatly bisected and slotted by a cannon ball of debris. all of this backlit by the vast blue and brown expanse of the planet earth. The scenes involving astronauts slamming at high-speed into spinning satellites and clawing at their surfaces for purchase have a stunning visceral quality. When a satellite blows apart entering the atmosphere, the capsule falls toward the earth like a chariot of fire surrounded by house-sized comets of burning metal. The film is shot in faultless 3D -- as a woman sinks to the bottom of the sea, a frog startles us by swimming upward, apparently a couple inches from our eyes and nuts and bolts sliding from the hands of the astronauts limpidly spin off the screen and through the darkened auditorium where we are watching the movie. The picture is so marvelous and so unearthly that I’m not sure how much of it the mind can retain -- and it’s really not so much a plot as a kind of computer game, a first-person adventure in cyber-space filled with terror and wonder, but remote from any experience that we can even imagine and, therefore, despite several very moving scenes, a bit remote and icy.