Sunday, October 6, 2013

No poets need apply


This movie stopped me from suicidally ideating.

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Written by Jonas Cuaron and Alfonso Cuaron
With Sandra Bullock (Ryan Stone), George Clooney (Matt Kowalski), and Ed Harris (as Mission Control?—hell, yeah!)

Spoiler alert: moderate  

No poets are necessary here, because words cannot convey the splendor and the sheer awe of Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity.

In terms of pure experience, it's without any doubt the best film of 2013—and I feel safe with my certainty, even though there are three months left.  It may be a greater cinematic spectacle than any to come before, and there's a good chance it shall remain greater than any in the years to come.  Within the subgenre of astronauts in trouble cinema, there may (may) be one or two or three better movies, called 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Right Stuff, and Moon (and Airplane II: The Sequel is, of course, funnier), but Gravity takes an immediate and closing runner up.  It is not implausible at all that time may vindicate it as the greatest.  I don't feel uncomfortable claiming already that it is by far the most viscerally involving of them all.

I've not seen a 3D movie since Avatar, because there it bored and eventually annoyed me.  I'm not sure I wouldn't tire of it with Gravity, if Gravity were also three hours long, but it would have a good shot.  All I know is that its duration is half that of Avatar, and the 3D here is practically essential.

Sitting down to Gravity is to be immediately captured, as its first, hypnotically long opening shot stretches on for minute after embracing minute.  When a storm of debris fusillades through a spaceship, and I blinked as if the shards of metal might strike me, I might as well have been a savage in the 1800s watching some early moving image, growing terrified at the prospect of being run over by a train.  Gravity is astonishment in audiovisual form.  It's almost religious.  If fuckable, I would fuck it.  Because it loves me.

The only thing that could make the filmmaking of Gravity more impressive is if it had been done with practical effects—that is, literally shot in orbit—and those long takes and swift camera were real, rather than conjured in computer space.

But merely more impressive: not ever has generated imagery looked and felt so real; rarely if ever has any film looked, and sounded, and not sounded, so perfect.  And best of all, the thousand second stares are not just stylistic flourish, but accomplish what chaos cinema and all its bullshit cannot, a sense of participation.  The expansive vistas afforded by the technique imprison you within the often silently unfolding catastrophe.  To cut is by definition to hide; in space there is nowhere to hide.  It is not ironic, then, that the vastness of the cosmos and the vastness of Gravity's unblinking vision of it is ultimately claustrophobic.  Beyond the thin armor of the suit that protects our astronauts, only death awaits.  Gravity defies death, and forces you to stand with it.

The story is deceptively simple.  It isn't exactly sci-fi, an initially astute observation that has now has been so exhaustively parroted that it borders on trite.  Gravity does not, however, exactly reproduce our reality—the space shuttle program still exists (with some twenty extra missions going by the numbers), as does a (presumably sixth) orbiter named Explorer, and the astronauts in this alternate present, or near future, are equipped with wonderfully efficient and powerful manned maneuvering units, which is either a science error or your actual science fiction, depending on how you want to play it.

It's an ordinary day in low Earth orbit, and Explorer's crew is carrying out an ordinary mission, fixing the Hubble (which I read as a fun and subtle callback to what was once the most overused joke in known space).

Though they do not specify exactly how many dollars, in billions, this upgrade is costing.

The reason for their mission is Ryan Stone and her invention, which does something scientific to the Hubble that is probably interesting in theory but is far from an immediate concern, since we know what is soon coming.  She's a nauseous rookie in space, but a veteran smart person back on Earth.  With the friendly, folksy assistance of Matt Kowalski, the job is just about done, when something very bad happens on the other side of the sky.

Thousands of miles away, a satellite is smashed by an impact, its mass immediately transmuted into a barrage of thousands of equally lethal projectiles that will orbit at thousands of miles per hour for years, and each time the debris hits another satellite the problem only gets bigger.

So begins the horrifying ordeal, as physics plays out with merciless inevitability, if with some artistic license.  Astronauts die, their way home is destroyed, contact with Mission Control is lost, and ultimately Stone is thrown out, alone, into the void, with her oxygen rapidly diminishing even as she hyperventilates in mortal terror.

Space after the rain.

The next seventy minutes are her existential struggle in the most inhospitable environment there is.  That is all, and, if I understand Gravity, it is everything.

Gravity is not content to be a thriller.  Depending upon your tolerance for the highest grade of melodrama permitted by law, I reluctantly accede that its intrusion into the story may not be to everyone's preference.  For my part, I loved almost every minute of it.  I can never look at Sandra Bullock the same way.  She has never been better, and, for what it's worth, never been more beautiful.  On screen in almost every frame, she carries this movie like Atlas.

(And for George Clooney's part, as Matt Kowalski he's a long way from his fellow future spaceman Chris Kelvin in Soderbergh's great remake of Solaris, and not often has he been more perfectly Clooneyesque.  When Kowalski deploys that faintly sleazy charm on Stone in the midst of this crisis, it's about pitch perfect, because it could do anything—calm her, make her laugh, or piss her off—but the crucial thing is that it's distracting.  In this situation, few besides Clooney could even hope to be distracting.)

In reviews and conversation, I've read a half dozen or more comparisons to the Zemeckis masterpiece Cast Away in connection to Gravity.  I do not fully understand this.  There are certain broad similarities, since they're both in the same genre—of course, they're both survival films.  Both begin proper with a disaster.  Both isolate their heroes in unforgiving environments, and put them in deadly danger.  Both heroes suffer demoralizing defeat after demoralizing defeat, and even their triumphs routinely prove to be short-lived when not entirely false.  And both movies are really amazingly great; but that is where the similarities absolutely end.

Cast Away is the story of a man who has a life that is taken away from him.  The life he had crumbles a little more each day he spends on that island, and when he finally returns to it, years later, nothing is left.  His wife, whose memory kept him alive, is lost to him forever; there is no way he was picking up his career where he left off, and possibly any career; and it's clear he suffers from serious, untreatable mental illness. He was finished as the man he had been.  He effectively died; if he was reborn, it was as someone else.  And I believe the film's ending to be more ambiguous and dark than perhaps it was even intended: the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  (By the way, spoilers for Cast Away.)

Gravity is the story of a woman who undergoes a traumatic event over the course of three and a half hours; this is not the tale of her ego death.  That happened a long time ago, and as a result Stone has no life to destroy.

In a matter-of-fact line of dialogue, amplified a hundredfold by the quiet character action and silence that thereafter falls, Stone says, "I had a daughter."  There's no one left but her now.  She has no real passions, not even science; no friends; no lovers.  She has no reason to live, and Gravity brazenly never even attemps to supply one.  If she does survive, it is because she wills it out of nothing.

It is the antithesis of Cast Away.  The sun may rise, or it may not, but why?  Because sometimes we choose not to die, for no reason at all.

But as far as reasons specifically to live go, you could do worse than being a scientist, an astronaut, and a Sandra Bullock.

And now I must proceed to the minutes I did not like.  The minutes I, in fact, kind of hated.  The minutes—two, if you're counting—that may constitute the worst two minutes I've seen in a movie this year.  You will know them when (and not if, I trust) you see them.  Every string on the Cuarons' harp breaks in these few minutes, and I choose the instrument deliberately.  True, I wept at the subtlety of the first blush of Stone's lonely burden, but it's also true that I don't need (or, really, want) subtlety all or most of the time, and the impulse to suicide is not ordinarily a subtle emotion.  Yet there are limits, and this exceeded mine.  No one needs to be told (let alone several times) that a person is sad when their daughter dies; it can, ordinarily, be assumed.  Forewarned is forearmed, however, and I hope that next time it will just be a lesser part of the rich tapestry of the film.

At the end, perhaps the most amazing thing about Gravity is how, as unwelcome as this slap in the face was, the Cuarons recover so quickly.  In many, maybe most movies, this might have been a fatal wound.  But Gravity survives; it triumphs.

Gravity was exactly what I needed to see at exactly the right time.  The last shot made me want to live.  Imagine that.

Score: 10/10

P.S. There was a deep background element to Gravity that, in the end, I probably imagined, but that I still think would have been rather cool.  It's contradicted somewhat by a throwaway line of dialogue, but that line is speculation by a character who has no idea what's going on, and is not quite an in-universe fact.

The reason that a satellite explodes and becomes a hail of hypervelocity daggers in the first place is that it was shot by an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile.  The owner of the satellite is Russia; the flag of the satellite's attacker is never made decisively clear.  Shooting down a satellite is what you would do in a war.  Thus, for a brief period, Gravity took on an Abyss-like quality, an extra dimension of apocalyptic imminence beneath its foregrounded story of individual life and death.

The line that suggests otherwise is Kowalski's; he supposes, instead, that Russia shot down their own satellite.  I recoiled at the prospect, because the dangers of space debris are well-known.  If you begin offensive counter-space operations of that nature, you will create a desert in order to have your peace.  You'd have to be an insane idiot—or fighting a war of national survival—to even think of rendering near-Earth space impassable for decades.  Right?

Later, though, I remembered that this really happened.  In 2007, the People's Republic of China tested an ASAT missile on one of their own satellitesjust to prove they could—drawing immediate and wholly deserved international condemnation.  This is like testing Gadget over Albuquerque to see if it really would incincerate people.

Earlier this year, a piece of that satellite probably collided with a Russian satellite, severely damaging it.  Fortunately, unlike in Gravity, the afflicted satellite was small, and broke into only two pieces, instead of shattering and spreading destruction to other satellites that in turn created their own destructive debris fields ad infinitum until all space was made desolate.

And of course, the U.S. did something similar the next year in Operation Burnt Frost, the shootdown of a malfunctioning, deorbiting spy satellite filled with toxic hydrazine.  This was different in a lot of ways to the PRC test, notably because the shootdown was timed to occur just before reentry, and also because a legitimate reason was attached to doing it, but it was still potentially very dangerous, and the danger from the hydrazine to terrestrial life was pretty remote.  (Personally, I don't credit the idea that the U.S. did to prove that it can destroy satellites too—we proved that eighteen years ago, if not long before.)

If not at all its main point, Gravity is a powerful political film.  Potentially catastrophic outcomes can arise from ASAT use in testing or in war, and while what happens in Gravity is extraordinary, it's not implausible.  Without saying a word directly, it makes an affecting and compelling case against the militarization of outer space, at least with what are, in some ways, the most indiscriminate weapons humankind has ever devised—what other weapon can inflict collateral damage upon neutral assets half a world away within minutes?

In any event, on rewatch—because I am going again today—I'm going to (try to) pay attention to this little subplot, because if the interpretation is supportable, it would turn the ending on its head.

P.P.S.:  I'm a big fan of the scientific semi-accuracy of Gravity.  I recommend the Bad Astronomy review for details, but, of course, watch the film first.  Too seduced to be concerned with it, I did not really notice the big violation of mechanics initially.  Well, that's a bummer, but like the man says, who cares?  Not I, certainly not I.

P.P.P.S:  This movie cost less than one third what The Lone Ranger did.  I find that amusing, and so should you.

P.P.P.P.S.: My original title for this review was "oners give me boners."  It seems unlikely that anyone will ever regret that they didn't send me to space, so I could describe it in words that really, you know, touch the heart.

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