Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity: So Good, You'll Never Want To Leave Earth

Who among us has not entertained the idea of being an astronaut? The idea of floating weightless, like a bird or an angel, away from the constant and inevitable downward pull of the earth? Having a job in humanity's final frontier, pushing the limits of human exploration, and even enjoying the mild fame that comes from mentioning at cocktail parties “what do I do? Well, I'm an astronaut.”

I believe they finally made a movie that may disabuse you from this particular career choice.

Don't get me wrong: Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is an amazing, entertaining, thrilling film. The premise is remarkably simple: two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) struggle to survive in open space when their ship is pounded by a cloud of debris traveling at enormous velocity. Even if you care to classify this as a science fiction film (which it is in the most literal sense of the term) you could say the nemesis is Newton's Laws of Motion.

And quite a nemesis it is. Objects in motion remain in motion: Orbital velocities are considerable. There is not even a universal frame of reference, no up or down, outside the distant Earth, which provides a beautiful and startlingly detailed backdrop. The physics, the space hardware, even the sound were all quite accurate (not 100% accurate, though: read Phil Plait's admitted nitpicking here.) No need for slimy aliens, giant robots or Darth Vader-- All the bad guy you need is in a line from the opening credits: “Life in space is impossible.”

The amount of visual detail in Gravity is astounding.
This may look like a doctored-up production still,
but it ain't.
How simple and glorious is Gravity? Before the feature came the trailer for Ender's Game: thousands of spaceships, slimy monsters, space-suited teenagers, stuff blowing up. It looks absolutely ridiculous.

A few notes:

• First of all, I can guarantee you have never seen anything quite like Gravity: it is visually stunning and entirely unique. Still, could find references and tributes in it, from Cuarón's previous effects-heavy films (like Children of Men, particularly the long one-shot sequences), but to a lot of other science fiction films get a nod as well. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brian DePalma's Mission to Mars and Apollo 13 are the obvious references: The Wall-E call-out is a little on the unexpected side.

• Sandra Bullock? I love Sandra Bullock (From Speed all the way to The Blind Side) but as a reigning rom-com queen she seemed like an odd choice for this sort of film. Then the scene came where she gains shelter in the airlock of the International Space Station and removes her EVA suit. To quote the Australian sages AC/DC, she was knockin' me out with her American thighs. Hey: it's sci-fi, but Warner Bros. is still trying to sell movie tickets here.

Space debris hits the ISS. The result: more space debris.
These scenes are terrifyingly well-done.
• The first shot alone is worth the price of admission (which can run nearly $20 if you go for the IMAX 3D deal). This shot lasts about 20 minutes, threading all around the space shuttle and the Hubble Space Telescope and the intrepid space-walkers in smooth, continuous motion. When a cut finally happened I could hear a quarter of the audience gasp, as if they all stopped holding their breath.

• Yes, I went big and saw it in IMAX 3D at the Metreon. This film was so well-made for 3D it nearly defies words. Having said that, I'm sure the 2D version would be good too-- because of what you lose wearing those dumb glasses. No 3D process, even if it is in hyper-sharp IMAX, is perfect: there is always a little fringing and image spill, and the stars, which were displayed accurately in configuration and brightness in Gravity-- were washed out. That bummed me out a little.

• Okay, the plot was a little thin and the backstory clunked a bit. This was all made up for by the fact the film was only an hour and half long. This fact alone sold me on seeing it on opening weekend. I was not being forced to sit through some stupid comic book character's origin story, or watch robots beat up on each other, for the Hollywood-typical three long hours.

Go see!

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