Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Gravity" weighs existence against existential (and has cool effects, too!)


Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

“Life in space is impossible.” The last sentence in the opening title cards of “Gravity” is both confirmed and challenged by what follows—a film that manages to be at once a white-knuckle thriller about a desperate struggle to survive and a quiet meditation on what drives the desire to live.

“Gravity,” Alfonso Cuarón’s first film in seven years, took an unusually long time to move from conception to execution: in its earliest stages, it wasn’t even set in space, though it’s now hard to imagine taking place anywhere else. There’s an elegant simplicity to the emptiness of space that serves its themes well—being and nothingness, if you will. Not that emptiness is all or even mainly what we see on screen; the movie takes place within striking distance of an international space station, with the beautiful blue, white, and green glow of Earth continually visible, and always in the foreground, our two principal human characters. These are a female engineer on her first mission, the oddly named Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), and her commanding officer, Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). It’s just another day at work for them, doing routine maintenance on a telescope, when the destruction of a Russian satellite unleashes a devastating flood of space debris that pulverizes their space shuttle and leaves them adrift and, in Ryan’s case, perilously low on oxygen.

Particularly in the early sequences, one of which thrusts the audience into Ryan’s perspective as she’s spinning helplessly in space, clawing desperately for some kind of visual cue or point of stability to orient her, the film has a breathless intensity that puts most action films to shame. After that first stretch, Cuarón pulls back at intervals to allow for a little breathing room, only to tighten the screws before we get any real chance to relax. It’s not sadistic so much as unrelenting, the much- (and justly) touted visual effects underscoring the pitilessness of the vast void, as well as its icily impersonal beauty.

Yet what gives the film its power isn’t its visual expansiveness but rather its intimacy, embodied in its focus on Ryan and Kowalski. Which is not to say that we get to know either of them well in the usual sense; although Kowalski is chattier than the reticent Ryan, the two are relative strangers to each other and we only learn a few details about their personal lives. But we learn about them, and empathize with them, in how they react to their predicament. Of the two, Ryan functions more successfully as the audience proxy, partly because she’s the novice here, partly because Bullock is such a believable Everywoman. (Kowalski, by contrast, exudes just a little too much Clooneyesque charm, even at moments of extreme crisis, to be entirely relatable.) Perhaps for this reason, the most haunting scene is one in which Ryan has just enough time to realize and reflect on the fact that she's about to die. She says, quite simply and heartbreakingly, “I know, we’re all going to die. But I’m going to die today.” In a beautiful passage from Roger Ebert’s last memoir, the late great movie critic touches on exactly this fear:

I don’t expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment, while I am writing. I was talking the other day with…a friend of 35 years, and the conversation turned to our deaths, as it always does. “Ask someone how they feel about death,” he said, “and they’ll tell you everyone’s gonna die. Ask them, In the next 30 seconds? No, no, no, that’s not gonna happen. How about this afternoon? No. What you’re really asking them to admit is, Oh my God, I don’t really exist. I might be gone at any given second.

I won’t give away whether Ryan and Kowalski actually do die over the course of the movie. The outcome (which may surprise you) doesn’t affect the impact of that moment—a moment of particular significance for Ryan, who has a tragedy in her past that’s left her little or nothing to live for. Under those circumstances, what makes a person want, and fight, to live? Mere instinct? Or some higher power? “Gravity” ultimately skirts any definite answer to that question, at most suggesting that some force greater than animal survival lies behind the human will to live. Whether that force is spiritual or merely evolutionary, the viewer is left to decide. Some may find that evasiveness irritating, and while I don’t, I do think it makes the difference between a very good movie and a great one. Still, the fact that it encourages such pondering without letting up on the suspense, all within an economical 90 minutes, is no mean feat. In fact, it’s damned impressive. Without a doubt, Cuarón deserves full credit for realizing a vision that on paper must have seemed as impossible as, well, life in space.


Also saw:


Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, Mahat M. Ali; one scene featuring Catherine Keener

True to its title, this film depicts the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. merchant marine ship by four Somali pirates from the perspective of the ship’s captain. Tom Hanks convincingly inhabits the no-flash, no-frills character (even if he doesn’t quite nail the New England accent) of the skipper who manages to keep his head and outmaneuver his adversaries using only his wits and his superior knowledge of the ship. However, the hijackers (all friends and first-time actors from a Somali community in Minneapolis) more than hold their own opposite him, especially Barkhad Abdi as their diminutive but fierce-willed leader, Muse. As directed by Paul Greengrass (“United 93,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”) with his usual lack of sentimental gloss but thankfully less than his usual quota of handheld shaky-cam, "Captain Phillips" presents a compelling portrait of men fueled by economic desperation who you can’t help hoping will make better choices—despite the fact that their lives have been defined by the glaring absence of better choices. The film does go a beat too long, especially in the last 20 minutes, which could probably have been condensed without damage to the narrative. Still, the prolonged waiting for resolution underscores the agony felt by all the players in a tragedy that feels simultaneously global and intensely, claustrophobically local.



Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde, others

Solidly entertaining flick about the real-life 1970s rivalry between two Formula One drivers, the hard-partying British daredevil James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the hyper-focused, disciplined Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl, best known as the Nazi war hero who tries unsuccessfully to woo Mélanie Laurent in "Inglourious Basterds"). The racing scenes have an impressive kick even if you already know how they turned out, and Hemsworth and Brühl are both excellent in their respective roles—even if the script overplays the contrast between Hunt’s impulsive, hedonistic recklessness and Lauda’s relentlessly austere, Germanic precision. Other characters flit in and out of the picture without making much of an impression, with the exception of German actress Alexandra Maria Lara as the woman who stands by Niki notwithstanding his characteristically dour pronouncement that “happiness is the enemy.”



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