Monday, October 07, 2013

Gravity / **** (PG-13)

Ryan Stone: Sandra Bullock
Matt Kowalski: George Clooney

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Alfonso Caurón. Written by Alfonso Caurón and Jonás Caurón. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images, and brief strong language).

There are two historical events in man’s history with space that kept coming to mind throughout my screening of the new space thriller “Gravity”. One was the Apollo 13 mission, which saw the astronauts of that mission avoiding disaster with surprisingly low tech equipment and a good deal of improvisation. The events of that mission were memorably put to film in Ron Howard’s most accomplish movie of the same name. I was also reminded of the Space Shuttle Challenger mission, which met disaster in January of 1986 when the shuttle exploded shortly after its launch. One of the seven-crew members of this ill-fated mission was Christa McAuliffe, a civilian teacher from New Hampshire. “Gravity” is a jarring reminder that space is not the fantastical place that we often see in movies like “Star Wars” or “Star Trek”, but an extremely dangerous environment in which our fragility is magnified by the alien nature of its zero gravity conditions.

I don’t think it is by accident that the main character in this harrowing movie is a woman and an educator. I was in 8th grade when the Challenger was to fly its mission, and with McAuliffe as the first American civilian and teacher in space, every television in the school was tuned to the launch. It was one of those days in history that you never forget. The parallels with Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone to McAuliffe as a civilian woman tie a great percentage of American audiences to the material in a more personal way than if the character were male and a career military man.

The film depicts a shuttle mission in which Stone has been commissioned to place new technology into an American satellite. George Clooney joins Bullock as the mission’s commanding officer, a veteran astronaut named Matt Kowalski. After debris from a Russian anti-satellite test strike wipes out their shuttle and the rest of their team, the two astronauts must devise some way to survive their ordeal in just their suits and one space walk jet pack. They decide to try to reach the International Space Station before the debris completes another orbit.

That synopsis makes their struggle seem fairly simple, but it is not. The perils of space seem to have a knack for multiplying at an exponential rate. Director Alfonso Caurón and his co-screenwriter Jonás Caurón exemplify this in two different ways throughout the film. First, they hit their characters with utter destruction. The sequence depicting the space debris destroying the space shuttle mission is devastating. In space there is no friction to slow the speed of objects when they are projected in any direction, so nothing really slows down. The space debris rips the scenery apart. Also, once anything is impacted it deflects in its own direction with the same velocity. The result is a series of debris explosions that take over the space that the astronauts occupy. It is total chaos depicted with ruthless clarity.

When every object in the world around the astronauts isn’t exploding into little fragments of death, the Cauróns rely on that silence of space to make their point. Visually the silence is accompanied by the vast darkness of space. The astronauts are alone out there, without any sort of spacecraft. Despite their suits they are naked to the cold clutches of nothingness. Even the soundtrack isolates them. They are in constant contact with Mission Control (voiced by an uncredited and veteran Mission Control actor Ed Harris). However, the sound is designed so we can’t always hear what Mission Control is saying. As the characters get lost in the peril while they wrap their heads around the situation, the sounds of their jobs fade in and out of focus much like the images will fade in and out of focus for a character who is losing consciousness. And, when communication with Mission Control is lost, is raises the desperation level of the situation.

Mission Control also serves another purpose in the structure of the story. It establishes the procedural nature of the astronauts’ training. This purpose is two-fold by highlighting the monotonous nature of their procedural system, which is contrasted by the drastic unusual events they are forced to face. It also reinforces to the audience how highly trained these individuals are. Everything has been rehearsed over and over to the point that it is easy for the audience to understand how their instinct can kick in for the survival situation, keeping them going under circumstances that would crush the average person. That same training is what makes it possible for them to continue without the presence of Mission Control.

To call “Gravity” a nail-biting experience would be a bit of a promotion to the notion of biting your nails from anxiety. The phrase “edge or your seat” comes to mind. Even it seems inadequate. Caurón never lets up throughout the entire 90 minute running time. When the characters are out of breath, so is the audience; and then, something else goes wrong. When at one point it seems there is no longer any hope, the audience will understand if the characters decide just to give up and let death come.

With a 98% positive score on movie rating meter Rotten Tomatoes, the only negatives I’ve read about “Gravity” is its lack of philosophical themes. These themes are an aspect of science fiction storytelling that often reflects some topical truth about the human condition. This is an unfair criticism of “Gravity”, however, as it is not really a science fiction film. It takes place in space, but is firmly rooted in our reality. This is a story of the struggle for survival under extreme conditions. It is one of the best-executed ones I’ve ever seen. It places the audience into the deadly environment the characters inhabit, gives a clear understanding of the rules of that environment and the very foreign nature of it, and brings us along for the ride. It is an exhilarating and exhausting ride that will try your senses and emotions in a way only a masterpiece of filmmaking can. “Gravity” will make you glad to have your feet planted on the ground.

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