Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, February 1, 2014

Recent Watches: Gravity (2013)

Welcome to the official start of my Oscar Coverage! Over the next month, I'll be reviewing as many of the nominated films as possible. Hopefully, this will average out to about a new review every day but, as with everything at "Film Thoughts," I'm not making any promises. To start, here's a review I wrote back in December before the nominations were announced.

I like Alfonso Curoan. I’m not experienced enough with the guy’s resume to say I love him. “Children of Man” was pretty good. I liked “Yu tu Mamba Tambian.” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” wasn’t… The worse “Harry Potter” movie. Either way, it was clear early on that “Gravity” was going to be an event film, even after it was delayed for years, its star shifting around several times. Expectantly, “Gravity” has received unanimous critical acclaim, widely considered by many to be the best film of the year. The premise was dynamite. A nearly single-character show about an astronaut adrift in space? Couldn’t wait. And then it was announced that Sandra Bullock was going star in the film. Some readers might mistake my venomous hatred of Sandra Bullock as some sort of reoccurring joke. It’s not. I really do dislike the actress in an immense sort of way. Even though the film was, by most accounts, excellent, could I stand spending ninety minutes with Bullock? This is why it took me so long to see “Gravity,” this conflict in my self between interest in the film’s premise and distrust of its star.

Bullock didn’t ruin the movie for me. I must be feeling especially generous because I’ll even say she gives a good performance. Protagonist Ryan Stone has been described to me as an audience surrogate, which is partially accurate. Stone’s character development is informed mostly by three scenes. She has a brief monologue about a dead daughter, is told to let go and move on via dream sequence, and summons up the will to survive before the end. It’s a standard self-redemption arc, wrapped in a survival story, and not exactly cutting edge stuff. The viewer knows next to nothing about her during several of the film’s most exciting moments. Bullock sells panic and existential dread effectively while bouncing around special effect set-pieces. It’s a good performance but not what carries the film.

The real star of “Gravity” is its skillfully engineered thriller sequences. While its space setting pushes it into the realm of science fiction, the film’s most prominent genre is that of the thriller. After a brief introductory sequence, the film unfolds its first impressive set piece. Torn loose of her tether by space debris, Stone is sent on a perilous tumble through space, having several near misses with safety. This sets up a formula “Gravity” uses throughout its run time. Stone reaches out for safety, desperate, always inches away from slipping loose and falling into the endless vacuum of space. The film keeps finding new spins on that scenario, involving tangled up parachutes, sudden fires, more space debris, death defying dives through the stars, and perilous reentries. Over and over again, I found myself gasping before breathing sighs of relief. Curoan has created a deeply human, incredibly vulnerable hero that the audience can easily see themselves in. Stone isn’t an unstoppable superhero. She panics, rightfully terrified, just like a normal person would be.

If it’s not Bullock’s performance that invests the audience so deeply, what does? It’s all in the way the film is shot. Curaon is well noted for his love of the long take, which he employs frequently throughout “Gravity.” The movie opens with a long shot of a space shuttle slowly floating into view, establishing the scale and scope of the film. This continues as the camera swoops and floats around the principal characters, coming in close, going back out again. When disaster strikes, this continues, the camera swirling with the protagonist, darting in and out of her space suit, over and around her body. The opening long shot continues for about ten minutes, using hugely creative perspectives. It’s hypnotic and spellbinding, drawling the viewer into the action as closely as possible. The free-floating style mimics what must be the feel of space, that sense of weightlessness. The long shots occur consistently for the first hour and tapper off considerably in the second half. This is a little disappointing and, consequently, the film isn’t as exciting towards the end.

“Gravity” has been noted for its scientific accuracy. Sound doesn’t travel in space, of course, a scientific fact the film follows. What little sound effects we do have are confined to the inside of the character’s space suits. Because of this, the film’s score and music stands in place for the sound design. The score is slow-building and subtle, not much more then clattering, building noise for most of its run time. As the story progresses, the music evolves, themes and melodies building out of the pulsing noise. The score changes along with the character, finding strength when she does.

“Gravity” is a technical achievement and, come awards season, I definitely expect that aspect to overshadow its other accomplishments. The film is brilliantly paced. Unlike most bloated Oscar bait, the film rolls along at a brisk 86 minutes. The script is streamlined and elegantly constructed, save a slight dream sequence-provided cheat in the middle of the second act. The performances are strong, even Sandie. Then again, who knows. Films that please both crowds, critics, and the box office have been known to make a splash with the Academy. We’ll see come March. Until then, it’s fair to say “Gravity” is one of the year’s best. [9/10]  

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