A LFONSO CUARÓN'S “GRAVITY” MAY BE SOMETHING OF a defining film in 2013. It’s rare that more than one exceptional science-fiction film is released in a year, and while “Europa Report” and “Upstream Color” still largely exist on the fringe of mainstream movies, “Gravity” marries tension and science realism in a way that hasn’t been seen since 1968.
The fact that it was so well funded and released wide is an anomaly. It’s an impressive feat, especially when you consider that a major release is almost always considered a sure thing, destined to hit and sell well. Sequels and reboots are popular because the audience already exists and tickets sales are nearly guaranteed. “Gravity” is not a franchise—there will be no sequels or toy tie-ins or promotional crossovers with fast-food chains.
This is a real, stand-alone, science-fiction movie, one that doesn’t involve aliens or killer robots, intersteller travel or hyperdrives. Instead, the film shows astronauts working in low earth orbit in a realistic, plausible way. Much has been made of astrophysicist Neal DeGrasse Tyson’s Twitter critiques of the film. While they are certainly valid from a purely scientific standpoint, consider how minor they are in comparison to other sci-fi films. What the film gets right far overshadows what it gets wrong. “2001: A Space Odyssey” attempted to show what was possible in a space-centered society. “Gravity” shows what is possible right now in ours.
I was initially skeptical of “Gravity” because of what it might have been. The trailers make a point of showing Sandra Bullock unconrollably spinning away from Earth at high speed, with no communication or hope for rescue. “Open Water,” a film from 2003, dealt with similar themes of abandonment and hopelessness, using two stranded divers in the open ocean rather than astronauts in outer space. That film failed largely due to the tedium of the setting, and it might have been easy for “Gravity” to follow in its footsteps.
But where “Open Water” had no tension, “Gravity” abounds with it. The difference is that “Gravity” gives its players a chance, however slim and unlikely. There isn’t much in the way of plot beyond a survival story, and the characters themselves at times seem a bit thin, but the film overshadows these flaws with jaw-dropping visuals and a nearly overwhelming abundance of suspense.
Every scene is well crafted, every shot spectacular. There are no sound effects in the space shots, just the underlying haunt of a film score, which only serves to highlight the tension. This is a film that will be nominated for Best Picture on these merits alone. Whether it will win is another matter.
If I have a quibble with the film, it would be the treatment of Sandra Bullock’s character. Hollywood has a tendency to repeat the same tropes over and over again when it comes to characterizing women. For mystifying reasons, Hollywood screenwriters insist of including highly specific personal tragedies in the backstory of female characters. In general, this has to do with lost children, lost husbands, or physical abuse. In a film like “Gravity,” I don’t know that the audience needs any more connection to a character other than the fact that she is a fellow human being in an impossible situation.
I don’t know that the character needs a reason to survive besides being a rational animal driven by evolutionary forces to do so.The personal tragedy seems at best superfluous and at worst a bit misogynistic. Technology and training is a great equalizer, so the need of the filmmakers to distract the audience with an emotional red herring seems to be an odd choice for an otherwise excellent film.
“Gravity” is one of the first films that I recommend seeing on an IMAX screen. For most films, the IMAX screen is unnecessary and frivolous. But because of the scope and scale of the visuals, seeing it on the largest screen available will only serve to enhance the experience.
It is unfortunate that the film is only available in 3D, another useless fad that can’t go away fast enough, but at least the 3D effects are well done. They don’t really add much to the film, but they don’t detract from it either.
Given the relative dry spell that happens with Hollywood films between end of summer and beginning of Oscar season, “Gravity” is likely the best film out right now. It may be the best film released this year.
Starring: George Clooney, Sandra Bullock
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Running time: 91 minutes