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‘Gravity’: Alfonso Cuaron’s Magical Storytelling

'Gravity': Alfonso Cuaron's Magical Storytelling

With Sandra Bullock free-floating and somersaulting
head-over-heels through space, Gravity
comes loaded with visual dazzle and technical wizardry. But its greatest stunt
is the way Alfonso Cuaron takes a flat premise  
— a medical researcher barely trained as an astronaut, floating alone
for nearly 90 minutes of screen time — and makes it an enthralling thriller. Bullock
plays Ryan Stone, stranded when the space shuttle explodes, but
the peril she’s in resembles that of an old-fashioned movie heroine tied to a
train track — only in this 21st-century scenario she has to save herself. As he
carries us from one near-fatal crisis to another, Cuaron’s story-telling
becomes the film’s best, most magical special effect.

 

Yes, George Clooney is in the film too, for a while. He plays
the shuttle’s commander, Matt Kowalski, whose personality is as unmistakably
Clooney-esque as his voice: a serious, competent man with a sardonic, comic veneer.
He plays off that other space-disaster
movie when he says, without any hint of trouble ahead,  “Houston, I have a bad feeling about
this mission.” Then Russian space debris starts flying, the shuttle is
destroyed, communication with Earth severed, and Matt’s reassuring voice talks
a panicked Ryan through some emergency maneuvers to try to get home — until he
drifts away and out of the movie.  

F

rom then on, Gravity
gives a visceral charge to the metaphorical sense of being lost and alone in
the universe. Ryan can see small spots of light glimmering in the darkness too
far away to offer any comfort. There is no one to talk to except herself. Yet Gravity makes this outlandish situation
oddly easy to relate to: it’s anyone’s nightmare of hearing a job interviewer
speak a foreign language, or arriving for a presentation unprepared. It’s the
terror of: I don’t know how to get out of this disaster!   

 

The film probably looks a lot better than your nightmares,
though. Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer who has worked on several films
with Cuaron and Terrence Malick, achieves some spectacular effects, with deep
blacks and eerie reflections of light, and the 3D is never intrusive.  If you’ve read anything about this film, you
probably know about the unbroken 17-minute opening shot and the gizmos Lubezki
and Cuaron used: a box filled with thousands of LED lights that allowed them to
film Bullock doing those somersaults, robotic cameras. All of that draws us deeper
into the story instead of overwhelming it.  

 

It’s Bullock, of course, who has to make us believe, and her
down-to-earth naturalness has never been used better. She finds just the right
combination of stubborn determination, and terror that she doesn’t know what
she’s doing and has just hours to live.

The extravagant praise the film has already gotten makes it
sound more perfectly made than it is. It’s good that the dialogue is minimal,
because what’s there, in the screenplay by Cuaron and his son Jonas Cuaron, is
often tired or obvious. When Matt asks what Ryan likes about space, she answers,
“The silence. I could get used to it.”  As if we don’t know she’ll have her chance. Her
character has a history (given away in the trailer) that is meant to be heart
wrenching, but merely adds a layer of sentimental goo, which a film this good shouldn’t
need. And the heavy music cues that tell us what to feel and when become annoying.

 

Cuaron is brilliant at reimagining genres, though, giving
them fresh styles and emotional warmth. He directed the best of the Harry
Potters, The Prisoner of Azkaban, as
well as the dystopian Children of Men
(still his deepest and best film). Whatever its forgivable flaws, in Gravity he makes outer space seem intimate. He is some kind of
wizard.

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