Cast Away Into the Starlit Oblivion

Review of “Gravity”

BY VINCENT ABBATECOLA

urlOne of the best aspects in the art of filmmaking is being able to see how cinema has evolved over the years. Every decade or so, there are new technical advancements that set out to create milestones that were once the stuff of dreams, and are now a startling beautiful reality. There was Stanley Kubrick’s surreal “2001: A Space Odyssey,” George Lucas’ space opera “Star Wars” and the lush, 3D extravagance of James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

Now, visionary director Alfonso Cuaron transports us to the immensity of outer space with this landmark film, his sci-fi survivor story, “Gravity.” He crafts a simple premise of two lost astronauts, and creates a modern space epic. What is different about this addition to the sci-fi canon, however, is that the astronauts don’t have extraterrestrials to worry about. What they have to fear can be considered more terrifying: the vastness of the starry abyss and the unwavering sense of loneliness and hopelessness.

Bio-medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first mission in space, led by astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is on his final expedition. While repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, the crew is bombarded by space debris that leaves Stone and Kowalski as the only survivors. Their shuttle, the Explorer, is destroyed, and communication has been cut off from Mission Control in Houston. With a limited supply of oxygen left in their suits, Stone and Kowalski must find a way to get to the International Space Station and plan their next steps to make it back home, before it’s too late.

It’s appropriate that Sandra Bullock’s character is surrounded by stars in the film because her film-carrying performance reminds us of why she’s one herself. When we first see her character, the way she exhibits such attentiveness to her work has us believe she’s been doing this type of work for far longer than she really has. This confidence in her work is essential to how she exerts herself to survive in the film later on. We are with her throughout the film’s entirety, so we feel every emotion that Bullock displays. From confusion to fear to a brief sense of relief to frustration to desperation, we are as fully immersed in her emotional journey as we are in the journey of her drifting through the black, starry nothingness.

George Clooney plays his character as a professional who exhumes pure confidence under pressure, and is someone you could trust when facing danger. He is our guide every much as he is Stone’s, and we want to hang onto his every word as he reminds and assures her, and us, that everything will be all right.

In true Cuaron fashion, he makes extensive use of the long-take style of filmmaking, with the film being hypnotically shot by his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The camera movements are beautifully inventive, and they follow the action in fluid motions that make the camera look as though it’s floating through space with ease.

The first 15 minutes of the movie are shot in one, unedited shot, fully absorbing the audience in the action from the very beginning. The shot begins with a glorious view of Earth, and ends with one of the film’s most haunting images, that of a helpless Stone spinning deeper into the void, and dizzying point-of-view shots from inside her helmet follow shortly after, which throw us further into the panic-inducing situation.

The 3D photography adds a depth to the starry abyss that will transport the audience eerily close to the actual thing. It’s unquestionable and essential that you experience this adventure with the extra dimension.

Seeing as there only two characters throughout much of the movie, the screenplay, which was written by the director and his son, Jonas, is fully focused on the characters, and the viewer learns just enough about them to care about their fates. The two are written in such a way that makes us want to spend as much time with them as we can, because we never know for certain if they will get out of this alive.

The Cuarons also include symbolic reference to rebirth in their story, with the tether between Stone and Kowalski acting as a metaphoric umbilical cord as the two support one another and keep each other alive, and the space suits standing in as wombs that shelter and protect them. The strongest images of rebirth come in the last few minutes of the film, but it’s tough to disclose anything else on this matter without giving much away.

The screenplay’s only weakness is that the events in the film tend to get a little repetitive as the story goes on, however, the Cuaron duo should be given credit to acknowledging that they could only make the concept of two people lost in space go a certain distance. It moves at a brisk and engaging 90 minutes, never being longer than it has to be. A little side note that movie buffs might find interesting is that, in what is definitely a nod to another great space movie, Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” Ed Harris provides the voice for Mission Control.

After a seven-year hiatus from directing, Alfonso Cuaron makes one of the most triumphant returns in recent memory, and it was certainly worth the wait. His ambition for new cinematic technology illuminates every shot of the film. He’s committed to providing a new experience to moviegoers with his visuals every bit as much as he is to making sure we connect with the characters on an emotional level, to make sure that we become as tethered to them as they are to each other in the film. Cuaron has made this into more than simply a movie; he fashioned something that begs to be seen.

He’s always sure to astound, similar to when he made “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” which is one of the best Harry Potter films, and the dystopian thriller, “Children of Men.” Now that he has made “Gravity,” Cuaron exemplifies that the future possibilities for filmmaking can be as infinite as space itself.

Final grade: A-