“GRAVITY” (TIFF Movie Review)
Based on the broadest definition of genre, Alfonso Cuarón’s astounding new film GRAVITY doesn’t cleanly qualify as horror. It is however guaranteed to be one of the most terrifying viewing experiences of the year, so it seems silly not to acknowledge it. After disappearing from filmmaking for seven years following the technically ambitious and thematically complex CHILDREN OF MEN, Cuarón has returned with a movie quite simply unlike anything else. As a depiction of space travel, the realism and immersion of GRAVITY is unparalleled; the story then uses that realism to make the space environment feel more unforgiving and chilling than ever before.
Minor spoilers follow
GRAVITY’s tale is simplicity itself. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as a pair of astronauts on a routine research mission that is rudely interrupted when a satellite explodes and debris is sent rocketing towards them. Their shuttle is destroyed and the two are sent spinning out into the black abyss. What follows is a real time chronicle as Bullock struggles to make her way back to earth through a series of increasingly impossible tasks. In terms of narrative, that’s about it and there’s something about the direct, no-bullshit approach that’s admirable. There’s no attempt to stretch or strain story here. It’s just a 90-minute quest against the impossible that somehow only seems to get more impossible (that’s possible, right?) as time goes on.
More than anything else, GRAVITY is an astounding technical achievement. The digital effects are as photo real and the 3D as thoroughly enveloping as we were promised AVATAR would be. Cuarón shoots long unbroken takes like CHILDREN OF MEN, only this time his virtual camera floats through space like nothing you’ve ever seen. That’s no hyperbole, either. Innovative equipment was crafted just to produce the long takes that would require the likes of Orson Welles or Dario Argento to bring an extra pair of pants to the theater. The studio wasn’t allowed to see rushes because it would take months for the crew to have shots even approximating the final product and the wait was worth it. Cuarón doesn’t just create a believable environment, he plunges his audience into it face first. Cameras spin across vast spaces to land in Bullock’s point-of-view and never once does it look cheesy or unbelievable. It’s always gorgeous and it’s always executed exquisitely.
The viewer is trapped with Bullock as she floats listlessly in space. The camera spins upside down, floats through walls, zooms across hundreds of miles of space, and always ends up in the perfect place to vividly express Bullock’s emotional state. Viewed in IMAX 3D, the film is almost physically punishing. You’re as disoriented and lost as the protagonist, locked in impossible situations with impossible odds and forced to feel it through groundbreaking effects and a sound design that cuts into the gut. Audiences will undoubtedly stumble out of screenings feeling physically ill, but for once it won’t be because of poorly employed shaky cam. It will be because Cuarón so vividly thrusts the audience through a horrifying adventure in an almost unimaginable (yet meticulously realized) location.
“Non-stop action and suspense” is a tiresome cliché that’s rarely accurate. GRAVITY is an exception. Following 5-10 minutes of set up (which is still stunning in its introduction of the space environment), Bullock is on the brink of death until the closing moments. The movie just never lets up its assault on the audiences’ senses, proving impossible not to get lost in the deeply visceral experience. Bullock commands the screen throughout as an audience cipher you can’t help but identify with.
Cuarón also tosses in some simple, yet universally resonant themes about survival and overcoming personal tragedy. Yet, that really only matters if you look for it. At least on initial viewing, you can do nothing but get wrapped up in the roller coaster while squeezing the arm rests until your fingernails bleed. It’s rare to say that you’ve seen a film that truly breaks new ground and redefines the possibilities of what can be accomplished on the big screen. GRAVITY is that experience.