The password is..."raves".
Gravity: Venice Review
3:00 AM PDT 8/28/2013 by Todd McCarthy
The Bottom Line
Thrilling, and as close to feeling like you're in space as most of us will ever be.
At once the most realistic and beautifully choreographed film ever set in space, Gravity is a thrillingly realized survival story spiked with interludes of breath-catching tension and startling surprise. Not at all a science fiction film in the conventional sense, Alfonso Cuaron's first feature in seven years has no aliens, space ship battles or dystopian societies, just the intimate spectacle of a man and a woman trying to cope in the most hostile possible environment across a very tight 90 minutes. World premiered at the Venice Film Festival, with Telluride showings following quickly on its heels, this Warner Bros. release is smart but not arty, dramatically straightforward but so dazzlingly told as to make it a benchmark in its field. Graced by exemplary 3D work and bound to look great in IMAX, the film seems set to soar commercially around the world.
“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” George Clooney's veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski half-jokes at the outset from his perch in orbit around Earth, which looms massively beneath. It's a sentiment few viewers will agree with once their jaws begin dropping at Cuaron's astonishing 13-minute opening shot, which gyrates and swoops and loops and turns in concert with the movements of the space shuttle and those of Matt, who jets around untethered while mission scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) tries to fix a technical problem outside the ship. It's as if Max Ophuls were let loose in outer space, so elegant is the visual continuity, making for a film that will have buffs and casual fans alike gaping and wondering, “How did they do that?” and returning for multiple viewings just to imbibe the sheer virtuosity of it all.
The story, written by Cuaron and his son Jonas, is very simple and straightforward: How will the two surviving team members of a crippled American space shuttle contrive to get back to Earth before their oxygen runs out? Old-timer Kowalski, who flew his first mission in 1996, takes a self-deprecating attitude with space rookie Stone -- "You're the genius up here, I only drive the bus." -- but his smart-alecky kidding scarcely conceals his serious professionalism and vast knowledge of the ins and outs of staying alive in the frigid void.
Before Cuaron even resorts to his first cut, the peril jacks way up with word of approaching space debris, the result of a chain reaction from the Russians having shot down one of their own satellites. Suddenly and shockingly, the empty space is filled with a metallic torrent from which only dumb luck can save the exposed space travelers. In this terrifying interlude, the ship is damaged and Stone, her umbilical cord severed, tumbles toward oblivion.
Here, as elsewhere in the film, Cuaron coils the tension and visceral impact of key scenes via a startling mix of the objective and subjective, and the extreme contrast between the stillness of empty space and the abrupt arrival of terrible threats. This is achieved by switching from the eerie electronic heaves of Steven Price's insidiously effective score to total silence; from violent physical action to tight shots of Stone's face, her breath visible on the inside of her mask and her nervous inhaling and exhaling the only sounds to be heard; from the beauty of a green, blue and tan planet on one side and the depths of infinite darkness on the other; from the awe of the cosmic to the terror of nothingness, from the warmth of the sun to the coldness of eternal limbo.
These oppositions provide the sensory frame for a narrative that, soon after Kowalski rescues Stone from her trajectory into deep space, shoots off in an unexpected direction. Urgently looking for a safe haven, Kowalski spots a Russian space station in the distance which might sustain them until a rescue ship can be sent up. Their oxygen supply is running low and Stone isn't convinced they can make it. Surprises await on the Russian craft and yet again on another space vessel, and when a weightless Stone goes floating about in nothing but her underwear, it's impossible not to think of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien.
But no monsters pop out baring scary teeth, only adverse circumstances of such extremity that they place Gravity alongside Life of Pi and J.C. Chandor's contemporaneous All Is Lost as a survival tale requiring a heroically concentrated form of human resilience. Those two films involve the peril of oceans rather than space, but then Gravity, with its characters all suited up and their heads enclosed in helmets, sometimes almost seems like it's taking place under water -- except that you can see more clearly.
And seeing is what it's mostly about here, seeing space as if the film was actually shot there. It's a wonderful cinematic jolt to watch this film for the first time, as it looks as if it had been filmed, as it were, on location. Given the brief running time, it will be tempting for many to return for second and third visits just to take it all in again, to absorb all Cuaron and his team of exemplary collaborators have done. The reliably brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has shot all but one of the director's features, has outdone himself here with images of astonishing clarity that, given the finesse of the 3D here, you practically feel you could step (or float) into. Andy Nicholson's production design is mainly devoted to creating multiple much-lived-in space ships so battered and abused they resemble banged-up old cars, while Tim Webber's peerless special effects work never has a CGI look.
With all the excitement and beauty Gravity delivers, at a certain point, around the time of the final long exchange between Kowalski and Stone, it becomes clear that Gravity doesn't intend to offer more than that; it shies away from proposing anything metaphysical, philosophically suggestive or meaning-laden. For some viewers, that will be a good thing, as it avoids pretention and self-seriousness; for others, its refusal to acknowledge the eternal mysteries, to be anything more than a thrillingly made, stripped-down suspense drama, will relegate it to good-but-not-great status. The very ending is quite cool and replete with quiet cinematic as well as evolutionary reverberations.
Alfonso Cuaron's white-knuckle space odyssey restores a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the bigscreen that should inspire awe among critics and audiences worldwide.
Senior Film Critic@JustinCChang
About halfway through Alfonso Cuaron’s astonishing “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock, playing a lost astronaut stranded 375 miles above Earth, seeks refuge in an abandoned spacecraft and curls into a floating fetal position, savoring a brief respite from her harrowing journey. Of the many sights to behold in this white-knuckle space odyssey, a work of great narrative simplicity and visual complexity, it’s this image that speaks most eloquently to Cuaron’s gifts as a filmmaker: He’s the rare virtuoso capable of steering us through vividly imagined worlds and into deep recesses of human feeling. Suspending viewers alongside Bullock for a taut, transporting 91 minutes (with George Clooney in a sly supporting turn), the director’s long-overdue follow-up to “Children of Men” is at once a nervy experiment in blockbuster minimalism and a film of robust movie-movie thrills, restoring a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the bigscreen that should inspire awe among critics and audiences worldwide.
Opening Oct. 4 Stateside following its Venice and Toronto premieres, the Warner Bros. release offers in abundance the sort of eye-popping, screen-filling spectacle that demands to be viewed in a theater. Not unlike earlier triumphs of 3D and vfx innovation such as “Avatar” and “Life of Pi,” though conceived along less fantastical, more grimly realistic lines, “Gravity” is at once classical and cutting-edge in its showmanship, placing the most advanced digital filmmaking techniques in service of material that could hardly feel more accessible.
As scripted by Cuaron and his son Jonas, this tale of one woman’s grim expedition into the unknown is a nerve-shredding suspenser, a daring study in extreme isolation, and one of the most sophisticated and enveloping visions of space travel yet realized onscreen. It falls among that increasingly rare breed of popular entertainments capable of prompting genuine “How did they do that?” reactions from even the most jaded viewers, even as its central premise is so simple and immediately gripping that one might just as readily ask, “Why didn’t anyone do it sooner?”
The answer to both questions is that Cuaron, in another remarkable collaboration with longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber (“Children of Men”), has pushed the relevant technologies to their limits in order to tell this story with the sort of impeccable verisimilitude and spellbinding visual clarity it requires. The long, intricate tracking shots the three devised for the earlier film were a mere warm-up act for what they unleash here, as is clear from the stunningly choreographed opening sequence — an unbroken, roughly 13-minute long take that plunges us immediately into the deafening silence of space. Specifically, we are in the atmospheric layer known as the thermosphere, the Earth’s massive form looming large in the widescreen frame as an orbiting shuttle gradually cruises into focus.
Three members of the crew have left the shuttle to help repair the Hubble telescope, though dramatically, the picture is concerned with only two of them: Matt Kowalsky (Clooney), a seasoned astronaut leading his final mission, and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a medical engineer on her first. The mood is relaxed initially, even humorous; radio music plays in the background as the astronauts exchange banter with mission control. Kowalsky, drifting lazily about in his harness, brags that he’s about to break the official record for longest spacewalk. The far less experienced Stone nervously tries to stay focused on her task, not the easiest thing to do for someone still adjusting to the woozy effects of zero gravity.
“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” Kowalsky quips early on. Yet all joking ceases when Houston suddenly reports that a cloud of debris, triggered by the self-destruction of a nearby Russian satellite, is headed their way. The camera, having gracefully bobbed and weaved around the astronauts without a single cut so far, continues to observe with unblinking concentration as the ship is pelted with shrapnel, killing the third astronaut, causing widespread damage and severing all communications with Houston. Amid the chaos, Stone comes untethered and finds herself spinning, alone and helpless, in the vast emptiness of space, an experience the audience will soon share to a deeply unnerving degree.
In one continuous shot, the film has not only introduced its central crisis — will Stone survive? — but also completely immersed us in the beauty and majesty of a dark, pitiless universe. While “Gravity” is hardly the first film to send characters into orbit, few have so powerfully and subjectively evoked the sensation of floating right there with them. As it glides nimbly around the action, the camera induces a deeply pleasurable feeling of weightlessness (the film might just as well have been titled “Dancing With the Stars”) that can suddenly turn from exhilarating to terrifying, leaving us gasping for oxygen alongside the characters.
The filmmakers’ technical command here is so precise that they’re able to shift perspectives at will; more than once the camera zooms in tighter and tighter on Stone until it seems to enter her helmet, sharing her frightening view of the great, black expanse before her. Exactly what she sees and endures over the course of her journey would be unfair to reveal. Suffice to say the script modulates the tension expertly, deftly preying on the claustrophobic and the agoraphobic alike, and maintaining an unflagging sense of peril as it carefully throws Stone one lifeline
The most crucial of these lifelines turns out to be Kowalsky, who initially comes off as the film’s most obtrusive element, a glib smart-ass who’s there to help Stone and the audience find their bearings, and to provide a measure of comic relief. Yet while Clooney’s flippant leading-man charm may seem incongruous in this context at first, his tough-and-tender rapport with Bullock pulses with understated feeling, never more so than when the two astronauts are tethered together, trying to make their way to safety. Clooney gets one particularly audacious scene that perhaps only a star of his stature could have managed, pulling the viewer through various states of shock, disbelief and finally bittersweet understanding; it’s a haunting moment that firmly ties “Gravity,” for all its uncompromising realism, to the soul of classic Hollywood.
There are glimmers of artifice, too, in the script’s conception of Stone, who turns out to have a tragedy in her past, an unhealed wound that feels rather needlessly engineered to provide the viewer with a psychological entry point, as well as a deeper stake in her survival. It’s the one on-the-nose element in a screenplay that, given its rigorous intelligence in all other departments, might have done well to trust the audience to stay invested in Stone’s journey without the benefit of an emotional hook. (Providing a fascinating contrast is J.C. Chandor’s upcoming stranded-at-sea thriller “All Is Lost,” in some ways a purer, more radical storytelling experiment in which words, motivations and explanations have been almost completely expunged.)
Nonetheless, Bullock inhabits the role with grave dignity and hints at Stone’s past scars with sensitivity and tact, and she holds the screen effortlessly once “Gravity” becomes a veritable one-woman show. In a performance that imposes extraordinary physical demands, the actress remains fully present emotionally, projecting a very appealing combo of vulnerability, intelligence and determination that not only wins us over immediately, but sustains attention all the way through the cathartic closing reels.
The outstanding post-production 3D conversion enhances our sense of immersion in this foreign environment at every turn. Images of outer space give new meaning to the term “deep focus,” while the scenes set in enclosed environs provide a pleasing visual balance and contrast, with floating objects supplying a natural depth of field. As visual an experience as the film is, it would be far less effective without the exceptional sound work by production mixer Chris Munro and sound designer Glenn Freemantle, which makes especially potent use of silence in accordance with the laws of outer-space physics. Helping to vary the soundscape is Steven Price’s richly ominous score, playing like an extension of the jolts and tremors that accompany the action onscreen.
All in all, it would be impossible to overestimate the difficulty of what Cuaron and his top-of-the-line crew have pulled off, or to guess at the staggering number of decisions that were made regarding specifics of camera placement and movement; the motion-control robots that were used on the actors to plausibly simulate zero-gravity conditions; the marvelous scope and detail of Andy Nicholson’s production design; and the meticulous integration of visual effects, all-digital backgrounds, traditional lighting schemes and other live-action lensing techniques. But perhaps the boldest risk of all was the decision to combine these elements in a manner that would hold up under the prolonged scrutiny of the camera, in single-shot sequences of such breathtaking duration and coherence. Somewhere, one imagines, the spirits of Stanley Kubrick and Max Ophuls are looking down in admiration.
Clooney supplies both manly reliability and welcome lightness as a guy anyone would want in their corner in a pinch, while Bullock is aces in by far the best film she's ever been in. An unseen Ed Harris supplies the voice of mission control.
28 August, 2013 | By Mark Adams, chief film critic
Dir: Alfonso Cuaron. US. 2013. 91mins
A genuinely tense and exciting lost-in-space thriller, Alfonso Cuaron’s exhilarating and often spectacular 3-D film is a real pleasure, driven by top-notch lead performance from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as well as some seriously cool special effects. Despite some lapses into sentimentality, Gravity sustains its simple concept and turns out to be a real audience pleaser as well as a shrewd choice for opening night film for the Venice Film Festival, where it has its premiere.
Technically Gravity is a great success, and Cuaron pulls off all sorts of camera moves and beautifully orchestrated effects sequences that will leave audiences breathless.
The film has been much anticipated since release of its trailer, which essentially set up the opening scenes and prompted much heated debate as to where the story would head. There will be little disappointment from audiences who are likely to be thrilled by the well sustained edge-of-the-seat thrills as this space-bound film follows the well-worn disaster movie format and keeps things tense right up until the final scenes. While the performances are spot on, the real stars of the film are Cuaron’s smart direction and the spectacular special effects, which should come under attention during awards season.
Gravity sees Cuaron re-teamed with impressive cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who worked with him on Children Of Men); costume designer Jany Temime (who worked on the Harry Potter films), and Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Tim Webber (Children Of Men and The Dark Knight). And while it might be easy to dismiss aspects of the film as special effects heavy – how could they not be, given it is set in space – it is to Clooney and Bullock’s credit that they breathe real life into characters who could well be subsumed by the technology, jargon, space suits and danger that surrounds them.
Bullock plays Dr Ryan Stone, a straight-laced and brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, in the safe hands of genial and avuncular veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney). But when they are out of the Challenger – he on a space walk and she attempting to fix technology on a new telescope – disaster strikes.
It seems the Russians have launched a missile to destroy one of their old satellites, but accidentally the acts sees a spread of debris heading towards the American shuttle.
With their shuttle destroyed and the rest of the crew killed, Stone and Kowalsky are left alone in space, tethered to each other but with their limited oxygen supply draining away and with their only option to try and make their way across space to see if Russian and Chinese space stations may offer a vague chance of escape. But always in the knowledge that the deadly debris will be heading their way again in 90 minutes.
Without giving too much of the plot away – rest assured there are plenty of twists and turns – this is very much Sandra Bullock’s film. Much has been made of Angelina Jolie turning the role down, and it only coming Bullock’s way after Nathalie Portman’s pregnancy, but Bullock’s combination of intelligence and straight-forward charm works perfectly here, plus she convinces in the physicality of the role, whether it be flying through space or fighting fires inside a space craft.
The film is littered with spectacular visual moments as Alfonso Cuaron (working from a script written by himself and son Jonas) mixes almost balletic, spiraling, scenes as space craft are torn apart and mere humans in delicate space suits are thrown into the void with moments of quiet beauty as they the two intrepid astronauts relish the beautiful vistas and deadly beauty they find themselves amongst.
Whether it be Sandra Bullock curled in a fetal position having fought her way into a space craft and divesting herself of her clunky space and relishing a moment of brief calm, or the look of joy on Clooney’s face as he stares down at Earth while amusing mission control with yet another rambling story, it is that balance between the human and the scientific that keeps the film grounded and always exciting.
There are a few lapses into sentimentality as Bullock’s character talks about her past, plus there a few rather obvious moments (one involving a fire extinguisher), but these are sort of to be expected. Gravity would be impossible to sustain if it was simply about peril and space debris. As Kowalsky quips early on, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission”, and with good reason.
Clooney’s trademark effortless charm work nicely with his Kowalski. A genial seen-it-all, done-it-all personality, he is the opposite of Bullock’s Stone, a newbie who has shown no great skill in her simulator sessions, but has real technical knowhow. He is there to help her, calm her and offer her the confidence to try and survive.
The post-production 3-D looks terrific and does give the film a real immersive quality that it benefits from. Technically Gravity is a great success, and Cuaron pulls off all sorts of camera moves and beautifully orchestrated effects sequences that will leave audiences breathless.