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Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 12:00 am

Groundbreaking visuals save Gravity

Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone and George Clooney as Matt Kowalski in Gravity.
PHOTO COURTESY WARNER BROS. PICTURES’

 

Movie studios, and film critics, are prone to hyperbole, so it’s often advisable to take anything that either says with a grain of salt. That being said, you need to trust me when I say that Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is one of the most visually stunning and ambitious films ever made. For once, the hype is true as this is a genuine event movie, one that’s required viewing on the biggest screen possible. No matter how large your home video system is, it will not do this film justice. It was meant to be seen in the IMAX format. Cuaron has created a fully immersive experience, one that with its sense of scope literally swallows the viewer, creating the most beautiful and frightening depiction of outer space to date.

From the very first moment, Cuaron serves notice that what he has in store will be unique. The opening shot is of the Earth as seen from outer space, the curvature of the planet sloping gently down the center of the screen, the brilliant blues and greens of our home set against the vast darkness of space. It’s a silent shot and Cuaron lets us drink it all in for a moment or two before we notice that a space shuttle is floating in the distance, docked with the Hubble Telescope, a sight we slowly approach. It’s an incredible, humbling vision that immediately envelopes and transports us into the story as this opening shot runs unbroken for the first 17 minutes of the film.

The story is a simple one that we’re able to grasp during these opening moments. A small group of astronauts have been dispatched to the telescope to perform general maintenance and update its operating systems. The mission is a standard one, as trips to outer space go, but it soon goes horribly wrong when the crew and the ship are bombarded with space debris, which rips through and destroys the shuttle while killing three. The only two survivors are veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who happens to be on his last mission, and engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who’s on her first. What ensues is a thrilling fight for survival as the pair must contend with the threat of drifting away due to zero gravity, rapidly depleting oxygen supplies and the dilemma of trying to get back to Earth without a working spacecraft.

The film is quite simple, following a set structure. Its duo encounters and solves one catastrophe, only to have to face another. (That it bears more than a passing resemblance to Apollo 13 isn’t lost on Cuaron as he casts Ed Harris as the voice from Mission Control.) The resulting tension is palpable, the result of top-notch special effects, as well as the work of Bullock and Clooney. Shot in a large, rotating box filled with thousands of LED lights while being held aloft on wires, these two convincingly convey the horror, fear and dismay they feel at various times as they witness imaginary disasters. Each accord themselves wonderfully, but truth be told, this is Bullock’s movie. Appearing in nearly every scene, the actress ably carries the film on her shoulders. She convincingly portrays her character running through a gamut of emotions, while delivering an intensely physical performance.

However, as groundbreaking as the film’s visuals are, its story is somewhat pedestrian. Early on we learn that Stone has suffered a devastating tragedy and has put her life on hold as a result. Her ensuing journey from resignation to actively living her life is obvious as are the film’s themes of isolation, grief and acceptance. No matter, this is a film that was meant to be experienced as a spectacle and without question it is that. The grandeur on display in Gravity is unprecedented and must be seen to be believed.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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