Review by Ken Burke Gravity
A novice astronaut suddenly finds herself imperiled hundreds of miles above Earth when her return vehicle is destroyed, communications are down, and she’s left alone.
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Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, Gravity (which isn't really in the science-fiction genre but certainly could be considered fiction using science for dramatic effect), is grabbing headlines for its emotional impact (even the head of NYC’s Hayden Planetarium, who challenges some of Gravity’s presentational aspects—which must be frustrating for the director because he claims he got scientific advice so as to not be critiqued for inaccuracies in that aspect of the story [see the second suggested video clip far below]—has endorsed watching the film: “… if you must know, I enjoyed [it] very much.”; for more on this see Ben Child’s "Gravity's science exploded by top astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson"), it’s immediate box-office success (over $55.7 million in domestic grosses on opening weekend, including about $11.2 million from huge-screen Imax showings, both of which are already records for any October grosses [along with another estimated $27.4 million internationally]), the awesome 3-D quality of the visuals (word on this aspect got around effectively prior to opening, with 80% of the domestic gross coming from the 3-D release version), and the top-notch-almost-1-woman-show by Sandra Bullock as bio-medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (with equally-effective support from George Clooney, playing her space-jockey colleague, Lt. Matt Kowalski—whose talkative personality, penchant for C&W music on the intercom, and folksy attitude might explain why someone of his age and responsibility hasn’t risen about the rank of Lieutenant). I couldn’t agree more with all of the accolades piling up for this film, but I must repeat my constantly-intrusive spoiler alert here before you read on so as not to undo the impact of a pivotal scene well into in the narrative. If, like me, you’ve already seen Gravity (in fact, I’ve seen it twice, a rarity on my part for something currently playing) then feel free to read on; if not, I ask you to think seriously about spoiling your encounter with this well-crafted cinematic experience by reading any further before viewing because I need to discuss Gravity in full context, with no attempts to be respectfully vague. One thing that Cuarón isn’t vague about is the meticulous energy and technological investment that he put into his film so that he could achieve the pictorial power that he was seeking, even if he had to work with technicians who are scientists in their own right in order to allow him the merge of photographic and computer-generated imagery that makes this all so enthralling, so seemingly-verifiable that it was somehow shot 372 miles above our planet rather than in Earth-bound locations and studios (UK’s Pinewood and Shepperton). From the astounding opening shot, which goes on for 13 uncut minutes as we’re given a beautiful view of Earth from high above, slowly introduced to the orbit of the shuttle Explorer where Stone, Kowalski, and crew-member Shariff (Phaldut [Paul] Sharma) are attempting repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope (other crew members are inside of the shuttle; actually, Kowalski’s not really involved in the repair, just floating around untethered, attempting to break the previous space-walk record in an attitude characteristic of his cocky character), and quickly made aware of the danger suddenly facing our protagonists as fast-flying debris from an exploded Russian satellite (hit by a Russian missile) has caused a chain-reaction crisis by smashing into other satellites, unleashing a flood of rapidly-approaching metal and cutting off communication with ground-control in Houston (see "Laws of 'Gravity' suspended in filming sci-fi movie" from Scott Bowles in USA Today for info on filming this spectacular lengthy opening shot, along with an additional featurette on 5 exemplary long-take tracking shots from Touch of Evil [Orson Welles, 1958], Goodfellas [Martin Scorsese, 1990], The Player [Robert Altman, 1992], Boogie Nights [Paul Thomas Anderson, 1992; there are 3 of them here], and Children of Men [Cuarón, 2006], with links to each of the described scenes). None of this stupendous opening in Gravity is a bit static, with the camera flowing around as freely as the gravity-freed astronauts, moving around Explorer and Hubble in a graceful manner that soon becomes chaotic when the metal storm arrives, raining disaster upon our astronauts.
Once the ... "stuff" ... hits the fan (so to speak) everything we’ve just barely come to know is virtually swept away right before our 3-D-goggled-eyes as the Explorer sustains so much damage that the crew inside all die instantly as their oxygen escapes, Shariff is plummeted by metal as well—resulting in a horrible death as we see when Stone and Kowalski manage to retrieve his body only to find about half of his head missing—and all ground contact is lost, along with much hope of our remaining twosome finding a way to return to Earth, although for Dr. Stone the worst situation is how she’s sent hurtling into empty space, flipping end-over-end with no gravity or friction to stop her tumble. Fortunately, she still has direct intercom connection with Kowalski who manages to locate her visually, jetpack his way to her, link up, and then set off with his limited internal propulsion tank to the relatively-nearby International Space Station in hopes of using an escape module as well as getting Stone to an air supply as her oxygen tank is quickly running out. Once Kowalski manages to ease Stone’s immediate fears and get her to ease up on frantic consumption of her rapidly-depleting oxygen (for a doctor, her self-bedside-manner responses aren’t very useful as he’s much better at bringing a sense of stability to an otherwise critical situation; however, in her defense, this is her first time in outer space, she was already nauseous when the scene began, and she’s in a constant state of severe depression over the loss of her young daughter to a random playground accident—as she reveals in her muted responses to Kowalski’s constant stream of chatter—with no mention of any mate, family, or friends to even know if she were to disappear forever into the void) they move slowly toward the ISS, only to see that its crew must have already bailed out in 1 of the escape modules while the other 1 has unintentionally deployed its landing parachute, creating a tangle of wires around the ISS structure that makes this remaining Soyuz module useless for a return to Earth. Despite Stone being perilously close to suffocation they reach their destination but have no control of their “landing” speed, so they struggle to grab something of the orbiting structure with their only lifeline being a cable that wraps around Stone’s leg; however, Kowalski’s outward momentum is pulling them both to the breaking point beyond the possible safety of the ISS.
Consequently, in a noble self-sacrificial move, Kowalski detaches himself from Stone so that she can maneuver back into the ISS, then he guides her verbally through the process of reaching the airlock so that she can pull herself in and soak up the confined atmosphere of this extraterrestrial life raft (look carefully in the photo above to see her tiny form about to make a backflip into the ISS, an image like so many of what we see throughout Gravity that combines the sheer terror of our protagonist frantically trying every strategy available to her in order to save her life juxtaposed against a stunning background of Earth silently floating “below,” looking breathtakingly-beautiful while also conveying the horror of being out of reach). Much of the time in Gravity we also have the juxtaposition of the serenity of silence in space—where the lack of air to carry sound prevents us from even hearing the added fear that comes when flying satellite parts pound into Stone’s various shelters throughout the film (although the director cheats some in these scenes by working the sounds of such crashes into the musical accompaniment intended to enhance the emotions for us even though none of this would be heard by the characters directly from the object collisions)—to the death-implying sounds within the ISS capsule that Stone retreats to, that of alarm warnings as yet another tragedy strikes in the form of raging fire within the ISS when damaged wiring sets off a conflagration that quickly feeds on Stone’s life-supplying oxygen, forcing her to detach her module from the rest of the damaged ISS and either navigate toward Kowalski in a last-ditch attempt to rescue him or attempt to head home alone by gliding over to the Chinese space station and riding one of their modules back to Earth (his choice in the matter). However, Cuarón refuses to provide any “easy” solutions here so Stone then finds that the dangling landing parachute has wrapped around the hulk of the ISS, preventing the escape pod from moving very far unless she can do a quick spacewalk to detach it before the furiously-flying debris makes its way back to her again in its 90 min. orbit cycle. So, she quickly gets to work and, while she does have to dodge the debris shower once more (which hits more ferociously than before—or maybe it just seems that way because we know that any damage to Stone’s escape pod will leave her completely stranded), she accomplishes this mission just in time, but then (in a moment reminiscent of the malfunctioning hyperspace drive in Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back [Irvin Kershner, 1980]) she finds that her module has no fuel so once again she’s stranded in space but this time with no counter-dilemma strategy to extricate herself from this collection of near-impossible challenges.
If the serious experience of Gravity weren’t handled so well it might all just seem like an old Warner Bros. cartoon where the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote go through a set of routines as endless disasters follow the previous ones, but here the dangerous complications—while maddening—are plausible, the circumstances are kept to a constant level of tension for us (enhanced by the meticulous production values of the film where we constantly sense that Bullock is really alone in outer space or almost trapped within a useless escape vehicle), and the final difficulty that emerges within Dr. Stone is the question of whether to attempt any further maneuvers or just cut off the remaining oxygen supply in her capsule and lull herself into a quiet death where she’ll no longer have to battle the demon of her departed daughter. This is where the film clearly pulls us out of the realm of simple danger-and-response plot devices more common to James Bond or Indiana Jones movies and enters a literal life-and-death struggle within Dr. Stone as she simply assumes that all hope is lost—until she gets an unexpected visit from presumed-deceased Lt. Kowalski, who enters her airlock, gives her encouragement to struggle on to rescue, and offers the ploy of using the pod's landing thrusters to push toward the distant-but-visible Chinese space station. Then, just as we might fear that Cuarón has suckered us into nothing more than an exciting thrill-park ride that comes to its requisite soft landing, we understand that this “reappearance” of Kowalski was simply an hallucination in Stone’s exhausted, CO2-infused mind, in which either the departing spirit of her benefactor was able to make 1 last contact or she imagined his advice while unconsciously realizing what she had almost forgotten from her own 6 months of preparation training for this voyage. So, in a moment of firm resolve to rise above her self-pity (and not depart in an other-worldly version of her Earthly habit of just aimlessly driving around, barely listening to her car radio as a result of her morbid detachment from life)—in a manner more calmly triumphant than Scarlett O’Hara’s bold proclamation of “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” in Gone with the Wind (David O. Selznick, 1939)—Stone embraces life, turns her oxygen supply back on, and starts out for Chinese-aided liberation … until Cuarón thwarts us once again with further impediments.
As Stone approaches her intended escape vehicle she sees that it’s been damaged also and is losing altitude so she has to hurry to get into it by means of her own thruster—a fire extinguisher from the ISS—then climbs aboard to ride it back down to terra firma, despite her very real trepidations about such an attempt given that in all of her previous landing simulations of such a module (which operates the same as the Soyuz type she trained on, with only language differences which don’t concern her much because she’s mostly using the pictorial aids in the manuals) she always crash-landed. As if she didn’t have anything else to worry about at this point the re-entry is more like a steered-glider-free-fall, with further danger from the horrible heat build-up as the atmosphere provides massive friction. Stone uncouples her module from the rest of the deteriorating structure, putting her in the midst of a group of fiery comets, but she is fortunate enough to be heading toward a water landing and has re-established a radio link with Houston so we know a rescue team will be on its way—assuming she can get out of the capsule as it quickly fills with rushing water through her post-splashdown-open-hatch, then ditch her heavy space suit which impedes any hope of her reaching the water’s surface, then dredge up enough energy to swim to shore on whatever island or deserted beach that she’s arrived at. All of these challenges are finally overcome—including the final irony that the spacesuit build to protect her in the absence of Earth’s gravity and atmosphere provides her final brush with death as the welcome presence of gravity which pulls her back to our planet becomes her last obstacle when gravity’s pull on the bulky suit almost provides her demise if she hadn’t been able to kick her way out of it (some nitpickers have suggested that “gravity” really isn’t the right title for this adventure-drama because Dr. Stone’s outer-space-problems come more from a lack of this foundational universal phenomenon than the presence of it, but I see the appropriateness of Cuarón’s choice in both the need for gravity to initiate the long-delayed rescue of our burdened protagonist and the gravity of the situations for Stone and Kowalski as they both make life-or-death-decisions, each of them for her benefit as it finally turns out). While the series of coincidences that ultimately result in her triumph over external and internal adversity may push plausibility (and physics) to the limit, the “ride” is certainly more soul-searchingly-intense that the standard action/espionage/thriller movie, the acting by Bullock is sustainingly-superb (it’s a little early yet to start filling out Oscar’s Best Actress nomination-contender forms—except for Cate Blanchett’s tour-de-force in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine [review in our blog in the August 16, 2013 posting]—but Bullock’s work here certainly seems more award-consideration/winning-worthy than does her actual triumph for The Blind Side [John Lee Hancock, 2009], especially when you realize how much of this new film she successfully carries on her own with only the 2 scenes shared with Clooney and a minimum of any other acting presence except for the few intercom voices, most notably Ed Harris as the commander back at Mission Control), while the craftsmanship of the film is just spectacular (a very interesting take on this comes from Scott Foundas, Chief Film Critic of Variety in his article, "Why 'Gravity' Could Be the World's Biggest Avant-Garde Movie").
While I clearly see Gravity as one of the absolute winners of 2013 I can understand why some might feel that Stone’s resolution-to-live scene is a bit corny (kind of like the audience participation that brings Tinker Bell back from near-death in stage performances of Peter Pan), and from a definitely-overdone-dramatics standpoint, Cuarón’s use of background music to provide those missing space acoustics gets VERY intense in the final scenes, continuing on to an almost-ear-splitting-level during the first part of the final credits, which should also be considered as a distraction. Those considerations aside, though (the first of which doesn’t bother me too much because Gravity ultimately is intended more as an emotional than physical rescue story; however, I think the sound-mix folks do get too carried away with their bombastic levels at the end, which adds an unintended taste of forced melodrama to something with much more subtle intentions), I find Gravity to be a spectacular encounter, well worth the extra cost of the 3-D ticket. It doesn’t push for the cosmic overtones of the oft-compared 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 2008; still #8 on my All-Time Top 10), but it acknowledges elements of the audiovisual grandeur of that film, along with aspects of the heart-pounding-escape-from-certain-death-storyline of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), but finds its own identity distinct from those influences (and others cited above in the Foundas article) to achieve a mesmerizing result, a wonderful tribute to the unrestrained efforts of all who worked so hard to bring this wonder to the screen. As for my usual suggested musical interludes to finalize your contemplation of my comments here are a pair of them based on the combination of acceptance-of-death-as-an-alternative-to-unfulfilled-life (even with Kowalski’s suicide, in that he did it rather than impair the possibility that emphasis on his own continuance was too much of a threat to Stone’s survival) in David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (a play on Kubrick’s title) at either http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D67kmFzSh_o (original music video for the cut on the 1969 album David Bowie) or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcyuKUtgyZ8 (more of a Bowie performance video from 1972), along with the will-to-live decision as illustrated at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZGwHtGBZJU with Gloria Gaynor’s official video of her 1978 “I Will Survive” megahit (you can get many other versions of this as well, but this is the one that got it all started—I'll admit that if even if you don't find Dr. Stone's change of heart to be a bit contrived this song would seem to interpret it that way, but I think it's a legitimate connection to the scene in that Cuarón wants you to feel her transition more so than ponder its resemblance to real-life emotional response; if it wouldn't be too much of an obvious intrusion upon the story's flow, and if Stone had her musical playlist at her fingertips like Kowalski did, I can imagine her playing this tune in her escape pod or at least hearing it in her head).
Something else that survived for a long time was the transition from early-20th-century vaudeville comedy to the early stand-up comedians who honed their skills at the many resort hotels in New York’s Catskill Mountains “Borscht Belt” in the 1930s through the late 1960s, with many of them moving on to successful TV careers either in sitcoms or as guests on talk/variety shows before fading away in favor of the more “adult” (some would say “obscene”)/politically-inspired comedians of today. While there’s very little in Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank’s When Comedy Went to School beyond the expected historical context that explores the larger society’s anti-Semitism that led these Jewish laugh-makers and their likewise-oriented audience to seek insular entertainment in these Sullivan and Ulster county getaways, there’s a lot of joy to be found just watching the clips of these masters at work. This documentary is a concise (83 min., even shorter than Gravity’s just-right 90 min.), enjoyable historical journey narrated by Robert Klein, illustrated with old footage of (joined by recent interviews with) Sid Caesar (pictured here), Jackie Mason, Totie Fields, Joan Rivers, Myron Cohen, Rodney Dangerfield, Mickey Freeman, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Stiller, Woody Allen, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, and others, along with commentary from such “sociologists” as Larry King and Hugh Hefner. Were this an actual review I’m afraid I could offer only about 3 stars because there’s not much here beyond what you’d expect as a time capsule, but if you’re as old as I am it’s great to catch glimpses of such familiar faces again (and to realize that just as anti-Jewish presence in this country once relegated these members of our society to “sideline” industries such as entertainment—where Golden Age movie studio owners established the backbone of what we know today as a worldwide commercial/art form—such restrictions also pushed resilient artists into another form of entertainment—comedy—where they also dominated the medium in its many articulations [stage, radio, nightclubs, TV, records] for decades before a wider range of other excluded performers [indicated in this doc by Dick Gregory’s emerging work in the 1960s] and expanding opportunities in other TV venues and urban comedy clubs, along with cheaper air travel to more distant locations, began to put the Catskills hotels out of business), while if you’re younger you can get a sense of the foundations laid decades ago for the contemporary work of Chris Rock, Lewis C.K, Sarah Silverman, Steven Colbert, and others. There’s certainly nothing cinematically-specific about When Comedy Went to School so you could easily wait for video, but if you want a taste of what it’s about instead of a musical metaphor I’ll offer you a direct routine from Jackie Mason in 1961 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYYKKEe9CLY, including a few of his bits used in the movie. I hope that all of these comments and links, along with the thoughts they inspire in you, help keep you grounded and smiling this week until we meet again.
If you’d like to know more about Gravity here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8vDsW0D8hQ (7:10 interview with director Alfonso Cuarón) and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxaGPd8sWW4 (8:34 interview with actor Sandra Bullock)
If you’d like to know more about When Comedy Went to School here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuCufsHa8wU (10:23 Woody Allen standup routine from a British TV show in 1965 just to get a sense of the type of material explored in When Comedy Went to School)
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