Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Newton's Law

Alfonso Cuaron just might be the best director you’re vaguely aware of. Part of Mexico’s “Three Amigos of Cinema” alongside Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pacific Rim) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, Biutiful), Cuaron has been around for quite a while but doesn’t quite have the name recognition as the other two filmmakers. The box office holds this to be true, and despite critical acclaim A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men all failed to garner anything in terms of significant audiences. Only his contribution to the Harry Potter franchise, The Prisoner of Azkaban, was a legitimate hit, though it's safe to assume that was more due to the enormously popular subject matter than the artist at the helm, and in fact it stands as the lowest-grossing title in the series. Sadly, Cuaron's name is one better appreciated by the insiders and producers in Hollywood and niche film enthusiasts than by mainstream audiences. But if there were ever a movie that I would think would buck the trend and drive people to the theaters to see an Alfonso Cuaron motion picture, it would be (and should be) Gravity.
Dancing in space: not as fun as it might appear.
Written by Cuaron and his brother Jonas, Gravity is essentially a shipwreck movie set in space, as astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are stranded in the bleak emptiness outside our atmosphere after a catastrophic event destroys their space shuttle and kills all other souls aboard. With no communication with Houston, rapidly dwindling oxygen and only vast nothingness as witness to what they experience, Stone and Kowalski must make a few desperate gambits if they ever want to see their homes again.
Sandra Bullock; in space, no one can hear you whine.
Unlike many science fiction blockbusters, Gravity confidently grounds itself in reality, and at times you’ll wonder just how Cuaron managed to capture shots without actually filming in orbit. Visuals of Earth and space are absolutely gorgeous, even as disasters (like the debris shower that sets up the story) blow everything to smithereens. This is not just one of few titles I would impress potential viewers to see in 3D, but also for IMAX screenings, as the expansive visuals alone would be worth the ticket price. Cuaron’s innovative and ingenious methods to filming the actors in a seeming zero gravity mean you’re never taken out of the story due to grievous physics errors. The science does have a few missteps, but worry not, purists, as the errors are minor and help keep the narrative moving smoothly.
But while the imagery is indeed excellent, Cuaron is not the type of filmmaker to rely on visuals alone. As a director, he buries within its seemingly simply narrative of survival elements of spirituality, isolation, and the difference between the vastness of space and claustrophobic environment suits humans are forced to wear in order to continue existing out there. In addition, he borrows from and pays homage to several of the "disaster in space" films that have come before him, from Apollo 13 to Alien to Wall-E, with none of it feeling forced or derivative. The director is smart enough to know that film-going enthusiasts will not be sustained by tension alone (and Gravity has it in spades), and he weaves a solid story and character study into what would otherwise have been a fairly straightforward movie.
Don't you miss the days of "working on the railroad"?
In fact if there's anything disappointing about Gravity, it's the actors, though perhaps not for the reasons you would think. Cuaron also realized that this kind of movie would need heavy hitters in the main roles (there are a few voiceover parts, but it's essentially a two-person job) if it were to have any chance of success, and although Bullock and Clooney were not the prime choices (Robert Downey Jr. was originally attached, and Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman were all tested or offered the gig), they play their roles almost as if the parts were written specifically for them. That's where the problem lies, as neither actor feels ousted from their comfort zone as performers. We've seen Sandra Bullock hyperventilate, complain and freak out before. In most of her films, in fact. And Clooney's smooth-talking "I know what I'm talking about" demeanor has existed pretty much since he popped into the world. Neither is put in new territory, and while they both do excellent work, it's not as if they had to try very hard to get there.
George is a hit with the ladies even in deep space
But that's the only real issue I had with this otherwise flawless gem. With a gripping tale, astounding special effects and even a wonderful, haunting soundtrack by Steven Price, Gravity is not just an amazing experience, but by far the best movie released this year. While it wouldn't be technically correct to call it the "District 9 of 2013", this is arguably the best science fiction film of the past decade, right up there with Moon and Sunshine and of course the aforementioned District 9. Will it remain the best movie of the year? The next few months offer some promising alternatives, from Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave to Martin Scorcese's The Wolf of Wall Street to the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, among others. But most people already know how good those directors are. This is Cuaron's year, as mainstream fans are finally getting around to the idea that he is a great filmmaker whose work deserves to be seen. Gravity is just the latest example.


Richard J. Marcej said...

I saw "Gravity" this past weekend, sitting smack dab center at my local IMAX theater (and I agree, IMAX is the way to see this picture). I loved Cuaron's previous work ("Azkaban" may be my favorite Potter film and "Children Of Men", IMO, is one of the best films in the past decade) and he does some beautiful work here, with the same Cinematographer I believe.

I agree too with your point of Bullock and Clooney portraying characters they've done before, but that didn't bother me. No, while I truly feel this picture is easily one of this year's best (so far) my only real issue with the film was the soundtrack. It wasn't needed.

Besides being a movie, I believe this picture more than any other in recent years has a second, perhaps more pivotal job. When seeing this on the big (hopefully LARGE) screen Cuaron places the audience there, up in space. Many shots grabs the viewer and places them inside the space suit, floating above the Earth. It's a fascinating and enjoyable feeling. And thanks to the lack of sound, other than the conversations and Kowalski's music, yes, we are really there!

Until the music begins. For some reason, we're assaulted with a dramatic score just as the characters and shuttle are assaulted by debris. As soon as the music begins, a voice goes off in my head that says, "Oh yeah, this is just a movie" and I'm no longer a member of the space walkers. I'm just a viewer.

We didn't need the music. This picture (as great as it is) could have been more so, than just another movie.

Mr. Anderson said...

I'll concede that the music during that scene you mention was unnecessary, though it didn't take me out of the scene the way it did you. I get why they used it, to add tension to the sequence, but you're right in that particular case and it was largely unncessary.

However, I would argue that the final sequence (I'll avoid spoilers) the music is the perfect accompaniment to what is happening on screen, and wouldn't have been the same without it. I could have done with LESS music, but it was very, VERY good, and that's why I can let Cuaron get away with it.