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Non-Review Review: Gravity

Gravity is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking, and one of the highlights of the year. It’s a bold and visually stunning survival movie, built around the most simple of premises with incredible craftsmanship. It’s a lean and well-constructed thriller that manages to effortlessly capture the impossible isolation experienced by those flying in the void. Never over-wrought or over-strained, Gravity is an absolutely beautiful accomplishment for all involved.

Floating in a most peculiar way...

Floating in a most peculiar way…

Space is silent. The title card tells us as much, and the movie remains faithful to that premise. Barring the occasional collision against Ryan’s suit or the understated atmospheric hum of Steven Price’s score, there’s an impossible sense of emptiness at the heart of Gravity. It is the most pure of those “character against the elements” survival stories, where our lead faces an environment so hostile that not even sound or air can exist in it.

At it’s heart, that’s what Gravity is. It’s easy enough to imagine the movie as a film about castaways lost at sea, or survivors of a plane clash trekking through hostile territory. In a way, Gravity is the purest possible distillation of that core concept. There is no water, there is no jungle. There is nothing. There’s just an impossibly large amount of nothing, a black void ready to swallow you whole if you will let it. To describe it as “man against nature” is to miss the point – there is no nature here. It’s “man against emptiness.”

Hold on!

Hold on!

Alfonso Cuarón does a wonderful job bringing this tale of survival to life, as two astronauts find themselves stranded in orbit after a freak debris cloud destroys their shuttle craft and scuttles their mission. Cut off from any other human, even the hum of Houston on the surface below, the two attempt to find their way back to the planet surface – to survive and to make it home.

Visually, Gravity is stunning. It’s a 3D film that deserves to be seen on as large a screen as possible. It looks breathtaking, appropriately enough, with Cuarón managing to effortlessly convey the sense of remote isolation felt by the astronauts. Earth looms impossibly large to our survivors, but the gulf is keenly felt. There’s just a whole load of nothing, with man-made structures like space stations mostly existing as tiny specks in the distance, almost indistinguishable from starlight itself.

Into the void...

Into the void…

And yet, against this massive backdrop, Cuarón has crafted a movie that feels almost minimalistic. The sound design is a massive part of that, challenging the audience to watch impossible destruction that sounds no more intense than the occasional bit of dust brushing against Ryan’s suit. However, the script also plays into this. Like oxygen to our heroes, words are not to be wasted. There’s no purple prose here, no excessively long conversations or forced comic relief.

Long passages of this film pass with nothing but the sound of Sandra Bullock’s breathing echoing through the cinema. There’s a ruthless efficiency at play here. Our two astronauts are cleanly and efficiently designed, but without wasting time or space. The whole production has a sense of urgency that bleeds through and helps make the stakes seem that much more real. These aren’t stereotypical Hollywood action heroes dealing with a blockbuster threat. These feel like real people facing the most mundane and horrifying reality possible in their situation.

Find something to hold on to...

Find something to hold on to…

This creates the only real problem with the script. Due to storytelling necessities, Gravity needs to externalise some of the character moments. Both Clooney and Bullock are phenomenal in their roles, playing to the film’s low-key strengths by refusing to ham it up. However, there is a need for exposition and there is a need to clue the audience into various character beats. While Gravity is normally quite elegant in this, there is one sequence that feels especially clumsy.

It’s the only way to really convey the necessary character motivation to the audience in a clear and unambiguous manner, but it does so at the cost of the movie’s low-key minimalism. It’s only one sequence in the entire film, and it serves a vital character function, but it still stands out as something that doesn’t work quite as well as the rest of the film surrounding it.

Oh, chute!

Oh, chute!

Gravity is a film of paradoxical elements – of bits and pieces that really should stand in contrast, but wind up functioning perfectly. It’s an impossibly epic movie, but also a strangely intimate one. It’s visually stunning and complex, but its plotting is elegantly simplistic. It feels like we’re watching the characters embark on an incredibly vast journey, crossing incredible distances, and yet the movie is edited together with merciless precision. There isn’t an ounce of fat on Gravity, not a second that is wasted. It’s unfathomably large, but never unwieldy.

Gravity is stunning, and impossible to resist.

12 Responses

  1. I liked it, but I can’t say I loved it. Everything about the look and feel just grabbed me by the throat and took me for the type of thrill-ride I expected. Then the problem came when they all started talking, and it sort of went downhill from there. Good review Darren.

    • I didn’t mind the talking too much, save for one scene. And, again, I’d struggle with how to convey that sequence without dialogue. Still, I found the movie itself absolutely breathtaking.

  2. I loved the whole experience watching Gravity in 3D… Sandra B is simply awesome!

  3. You’re either an idiot, or you were paid to hype this stinker. Minimalistic? Try overwrought, clichéd, and entirely unbelievable. The dialog is hideous, the characterization is non-existent, and the physics are worse than the swooping fighters in Star Wars.

    • You are, of course, entirely right. It is completely impossible that anybody holding a different opinion than your own might legitimately hold it. You, sir, win the internet. Congratulations.

  4. Very good review! I loved the movie! Though in a completely different setting and style; Curon’s last work, Children of Men, introduces many unique aspects of Curon’s talent (long takes, in particular) that are used beautifully in Gravity. Both movies are photographically, technically incredible and innovative.

    The silent action scenes in Gravity are so stunning–the silence some how adds to the thrill and tension. We’re all so used to hearing very noisy action scenes in movies….then Gravity comes along and sports the complete opposite. It leaves a deeper impression in you, in a way.

    I’m not sure how Curon can top Gravity. I’m sure he’ll be back in theaters in a few years. We’ll see what else he has up his sleeves !

  5. I will say right up front that Gravity is one of my all time favourite movies. Yet I can see why some people have problems with parts of the script (the scene where Bullock and Clooney are trying to get to the other space station via the use of a jet pack and he asks her about her life) and also I am still not sure about the dream sequence scene. Seeing it in 3D on the big screen is the only way to go. I have bought the Blu-ray but have not watched it yet – in a way I am scared to find out that I did not like it as much as I thought I did! I would love to see the rumoured non-score version as their use of sound and lack thereof was as superb as the vision. Sandra Bullock was fantastic – if it had not been for Cate Blanchett that same year I am sure that Sandra would have won best actress at the Oscars. Finally – the running time. It was great to see an action/space movie that was not too long – 90 minutes was perfect.

    • Gravity is a very effectively told (and very simple) story that hinges on spectacle. I really love that about it. Again, I think there’s a sort of snobbishness towards spectacle in popular entertainment, largely reinforced by the success of films like Transformers. I think that finding a way to convey scale and depth on screen is just as valid as plumbing the depths of human emotion, and that a film is not necessarily limited by its script or story. I love Gravity, and am somewhat frustrated by the backlash against it.

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