Saturday, October 5, 2013

Gravity (2012)

One of the classic field trips when I was a kid was to the planetarium at the Cumberland Museum. Whatever group I was with would pile in to the domed room and watch in awe as the lights went down and the museum people put on a show. But at least once in one of those trips I found out one of my big fears. There was some part of the presentation where they were showing us the view of earth from space and the view pulled back and back and back, and I got the distinct (and surprisingly unpleasant) feeling of drifting further into space. Now, I love astronomy, and I love learning about space. But I realized right then and there that I probably would not ever want to go there. Because that sensation of drifting further and further away from earth was the most scared I think I'd ever been.

So when I say I was a little afraid to see Gravity, and that even the trailers made me very anxious, to the point of shortness of breath and (with the last trailer I saw) fearful tears, I am not exaggerating. And, being the huge cinema snob that I am, I of course had to see it in the most potentially traumatizing format possible - 3D and IMAX. Of course.

If you've seen the trailers, you know most of the set-up here, but I'll expand on it a little. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer who is on her first space mission. George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut who is on his *last* space mission. While the two of them and another crew member are on a spacewalk, debris from a satellite crashes into a space shuttle, causing a chain reaction that results in loss of communication with Mission Control in Houston, as well the deaths of the entire crew except Ryan and Kowalski. Probably the most terrifying sequence to me - the girl who got so scared at the planetarium when she was little - is Ryan tumbling out into space. Kowalski is able to reach her, and they have a plan to get out of this alive. Well, since that's the first half hour of the film, you know things aren't going to go according to plan. And that's where I'd better stop. :-)

What makes this movie so astounding is the cinematic language and the very real sense of danger. This is not a film that could have been made ten years ago - the technology simply didn't exist yet to pull off the visuals at work here. And director Alfonso CuarĂ³n, who we haven't heard from since his wonderful 2006 film Children of Men, uses these visuals in a way that few filmmakers can. The first 13 minutes of the movie are one uninterrupted shot, and that's not something you'd necessarily notice without being told because it's not flashy or showy, except that the cinematography gives you the distinct feeling of floating in space. What it does is put you right where the characters are, and when shit starts going down, you absolutely feel the terror.

Most of this movie is Sandra Bullock in a one-woman show that has to be the pinnacle of her career so far. I've never been that big a fan of hers, though I know she's better than most critics give her credit for, but she's on a whole other level here. She doesn't have anyone to bounce off of (except briefly with Clooney). The movie reminded me a bit of Apollo 13, which I guess seems like an obvious comparison. Both movies are about things going terribly wrong on space missions, but in Apollo 13, we're just as much in Mission Control as we are on that shuttle. We're invested in the astronauts' survival as much because Ed Harris and his crew are invested in it as we are for our own investment in those characters. Here, there's no Mission Control, at least none that can be of any use to Ryan. It's just Ryan and her own resources and, really, her own will to get out of this alive. She gets a little help, but what ultimately happens to her is - as much as it can be, considering her circumstances - all up to her.

This movie hit me emotionally in a lot of unexpected ways, particularly as I've just passed the one-year anniversary of my father's death. I suppose that, like all artistic endeavors, you'll get from it largely what you bring to it. For my part, it's the most emotionally draining and rewarding movie I've seen in a long time.

One final note, and I probably wouldn't even have thought of this if I hadn't been revisiting The West Wing recently and renewed my obsession with it. My favorite moment, and I suspect it's a favorite for a lot of people, reminded me pretty forcibly of Delores Landingham. If you see the film and you know that name, you'll see what I mean.