Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity

One of the joys of moviegoing is to feel transported to a place you've never been.

Gravity delivers this joy, abundantly.

From the first frame until the just-before-last, the movie puts its audience in orbit around the Earth. Theoretically, movies have depicted this setting before. But once you see Gravity, you realize they've never done it right.

They have now.

"They" consists of writer/director Alfonso Cuaron, crazy-good cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, about two hundred absurdly skilled sound and visual people, and two pretty actors.


The movie starts us in space, where astronauts George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are performing routine maneuvers around the fictional space shuttle Explorer.

Things take a fictionally disastrous turn when space debris reduces the Explorer to swiss cheese, leaving Bullock and Clooney in search of a new ride home.

This glib synopsis does little justice to the shockingly brutal and cosmically impartial nature of the action.

The movie's great achievement is to render motion and momentum in space in a way that is both faithful to reality and also compelling on screen -- two qualities that are sometimes mutually exclusive.

Cuaron's trick is to give his realistic movie universe a cinematic plot. Every new ship or space station our girl Sandra stumbles upon gets ripped into horrific shreds by that dastardly space debris nearly as soon as Sandra stumbles upon it.

This keeps the action moving briskly and along lines Hollywood audiences are comfortable with, while at the same time operating in a completely unfamiliar world: the real one.

In Gravity, a spinning astronaut doesn't slowly stop spinning. They keep spinning for the rest of eternity, since there is no force to stop them. In Gravity, an astronaut who uses a fire extinguisher gets thrust backward with equal and opposite force to the gushing foam, which in some cases can give said astronaut a mild concussion at the worst possible time.

In Gravity, space is cold and re-entry is hot. In Gravity, space is silent, and radioes have limited ranges.

It's all these little touches that make the movie compelling.

The characters, by contrast, are thin. And that's the nature of a ninety-one minute movie dominated by a space catastrophe. Thus, it was critically important to find two actors who can bring their own characters with them. The producers went through several choices before landing on our leads, and it was a felicitous process. You couldn't do better than Clooney and Bullock in these roles. Both are the perfect ages. They have the perfect amount of mileage on their lives, too.

And they seem to like each other.

Which is all we need to be off and running on what is surely now the frontrunner for Best Picture 2013.

It's early to call favorites, of course. The Oscar season is just beginning.

But Gravity is already better than eight of last year's nine nominations. It's quite similar to the ninth, Life of Pi, another movie high on visual artistry and low on character count.

I predict Gravity will go a similar route, netting a Best Director nod for Cuaron but losing out to an inferior movie with pretensions to social relevance.

That's always the way of it.