Wednesday, October 16, 2013

I've never said a prayer in my life. Nobody ever taught me how.

A few months ago, my girlfriend told me that, when she's feeling anxious or overwhelmed, she looks at the stars in the sky as a way of feeling calm and centered. I was reluctant to admit to her, for fear of sounding crazy, that as astonishing as the dark, starry sky can be, stopping to take in the vastness of space is more likely to make me reflect on my relative insignificance (and our planet's as well). The universe is both amazing and seemingly indifferent to us, and it's filled with a million different ways to kill us as casually as we'd swat a fly. As much as I'd like to say that I know what it feels like to be one with the universe, I feel like there's a power imbalance in our relationship. All of this is a long way of saying that, for much of the first half of Gravity, the film played more like horror than science fiction. The opening scene of Alfonso Cuaron's latest film, an extended unbroken shot of the crew of the Space Shuttle Explorer (according to Wikipedia, the movie takes place in an alternate near future) working on the Hubble telescope, is as disorienting and scary as it is technically astounding, and that's before debris from an exploded Russian satellite pummel the Explorer, killing most of the crew and setting its lone survivors - veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and doctor and mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) - on a mission to find a viable way to return to Earth. I'm still processing much of Gravity, but I can confidently say that there won't be a more nerve-racking moviegoing experience this year. When a friend expressed surprise that the movie is only 90 minutes long, my girlfriend responded that any longer would have been unbearable, and I'm inclined to agree.
Much of the what makes Gravity such a gripping experience is due to the excellent work of its special effects artists, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who, between this and To the Wonder, has had a hell of a year), editors Cuaron and Mark Sanger, composer Steven Price and everyone else - I don't usually bother with Oscar talk, but Gravity will and should win a lot of technical awards in February. There are moments in Gravity that equal the unbroken shots in Cuaron's Children of Men in terms of their jaw-dropping "How did they do it?" effect. But special effects that stand the test of time are about more than photorealism, as our ability to recognize an effect moves as fast as their technological advancement. What matters here is that the effects are entirely at the service of the story, creating a believable vision of space not as its subject but as the setting for one character, Ryan, to confront her own fear and pain and find strength that she didn't believe she was capable of. The scenes where Ryan's attempts to survive repeatedly turn catastrophic rely on the work of the many artists and craftsman bringing them to life, but it's Bullock's believably terrified performance that brings them to life. Ryan's journey from terror to despair to, with a little help from Matt, a renewed will to live is as compelling a character study as any I've seen in any movie this year. Bullock is better in this movie than I thought she was capable of, and I don't mean that as a backhanded compliment - this role would ask a lot of any actor, and she rises to the occasion beautifully.
Because so much of Gravity relies on visceral effect to tell its story, it's been labeled a thrill ride by its handful of detractors. They're not wrong, exactly - the story is very simple, disarmingly so, and Cuaron, a filmmaker who has always reminded me of Spielberg in terms of his visual style and his emotional directness, has topped Children of Men as far as emotionally wrenching moviegoing experiences go. The early raves for the film repeatedly compared the movie to 2001, which is a misleading comparison. Both films are technological landmarks, and both are a feast for the eyes and ears. But 2001 is a cerebral film, focused on the epic-scale narrative of humanity's intellectual and spiritual evolution. Gravity is a personal journey of emotional catharsis; it reminded me far more of E.T. and, of all things, It's a Wonderful Life (Clooney makes for a handsome Clarence). Like Children of Men, it's about finding reason to hope in a seemingly hopeless situation, echoing the final lines of Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable:
"Perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."
As for the simplicity of the story, it's true that the script, by Cuaron and his son Jonas, pares the characters' motivations and back stories down to their barest essentials. Some have complained that the movie tells instead of showing, but a cut away to Ryan's life on Earth would have taken away from the film's aesthetic impact. The simplicity of the story is essential to its power - Cuaron, his actors and crew achieve an emotional clarity that is bracing. One could argue that, say, cutting to a Buddha figurine on the dashboard of a landing capsule is a shortcut, but I love the way the film is about faith without ever becoming didactic - it simply speaks to things we all feel and wonder while leaving enough room to bring our own experience and perspective to it. After I knew where Gravity was headed, I found myself thinking back to seemingly trivial bits of dialogue that were actually pointing the way to the movie's deeper thematic concerns and the several different ways it can be interpreted - it's far more complex than it seems. I love the fact that Gravity is a blockbuster - while, yes, it can be enjoyed as a ride, it's also as intimate and contemplative as any of Cuaron's arthouse or lower-budget movies. Whether you love Gravity or not - and though I'm still processing it, I'm pretty sure I love it - that an unqualified work of art is a huge hit is good news any way you cut it.

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