Sunday, October 13, 2013

REVIEW: "Gravity"

Space, the final cliche. Science fiction, like any genre accumulates conventions. The sound of explosions in space. Artificial gravity. Faster-than-light travel. Laser-beam shoot-outs with aliens.

Writer/director Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" tosses all that in the waste disposal chute. Cuaron approaches the subject of space with a fresh eye. Unbelievably, amazingly, he directs like he hasn't seen a science fiction movie made after Kubrick's 2001. And while we're on the subject, what he created is probably the most original, freshly imagined science fiction film since 2001 -- at least dealing with the subject of space itself. Space as a hostile working environment. Staggeringly beautiful to look at. Utterly hostile to life.

The story itself is a lean, mean struggle for survival. It's set maybe 5-10 years in the future. The space shuttle program has been rebooted; some astronauts from the Explorer are giving the Hubble an upgrade. Meanwhile, the Russians test satellite-killing tech on a decommissioned spy orb. Unintended consequences cascade -- worse than one of the Coyote's schemes in a Roadrunner cartoon. Debris from the dead satellite destroys other satellites, forming a wave of wreckage shooting from east to west in high orbit at 2,700 mph like a blast of space buckshot. The debris field destroys the shuttle, kills all the astronauts save Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Now, to get home, the survivors have to get to the International Space Station -- where the remaining Soyuz has deployed its parachute, making it useless for reentry. That means they have to take it to the nearby Chinese space station and take its rescue craft -- if they can outrun the debris field orbiting the planet in time. And assuming they both make it that far.

Cuaron does what filmmakers rarely do -- even visionary sci-fi filmmakers. He takes the premise seriously. What would it be like to work in space? Granted that situation, what would happen? What could go wrong? What would the characters do? He deals with weightlessness (an expensive pain in the ass for filmmakers). He gives us silent space, and weird orbital mechanics, and all the intuitive slip-ups that would happen if humans (hard-wired for gravity) were working in a zero-G environment. Or fighting for their lives.

It's a gripping movie. Painstakingly researched, and scientifically accurate -- to the extent a work of action-adventure science-fiction set in space can be. The physics of space as a practical environment feels convincing. Cuaron and company did their homework. That said, it's an elemental movie. A survival story. Man against beautiful, indifferent nature. Live or die. I compared it to 2001, but the tone is very different. 2001 was beautiful, cold and remote. Gravity is what the Japanese call "wet." Emotional, involving, going for your gut, gizzard and heart strings. Cuaron wants you rooting for Bullock's character, wants you feeling her pain.

You do. He succeeds.

If that's not the final frontier of fimmaking, I don't know what is.

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