Seven years have passed since director Alfonso Cuarón's critically-acclaimed sci-fi film Children of Men released in theaters. However, the wait has only heightened interest in his upcoming space thriller, Gravity, starring the Oscar-winners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as a pair of astronauts who end up stranded in space after satellite debris cripples their shuttle and docking station.
Film buffs have spent the last couple years looking forward to another master class in technical wizardry from Cuarón, following the announcement that his 3D project contains an elaborate 15-20 minute opening shot; not to mention, even more of the director's signature extended tracking shots and uninterrupted takes than have been featured in his previous films (including, Y Tu Mamá También and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). More recently, the larger moviegoing public has become aware of Cuarón's shenanigans, thanks to the terrifying scenarios and horrors glimpsed throughout the Gravity trailers and TV spots released to date.
Question is, does Gravity likewise boast emotional depth and thematic substance, to go along with the enthralling 3D spectacle and camerawork used to recreate the sensation of being in space (for people in the audience)? After all, last year's Academy Award-winning Life of Pi adaptation was seen as a breakthrough for 3D filmmaking, by marrying together masterful use of the stereoscopic format with a more thoughtful and unconventional narrative than was featured in past 3D breakthrough movies (sorry Avatar). That is to say, the bar has been raised for 3D entertainment, in the time since Cuarón began production on Gravity.
Gravity was selected the opening night feature for the 2013 Venice Film Festival, which accounts for why a handful of professional movie critics and journalists in attendance have posted their reviews online just over a month ahead of the film's theatrical premiere. So far, there appears to be universal agreement about one thing: Cuarón's project is just as harrowing and technically-impressive a viewing experience as the trailers have indicated:
Not unlike earlier triumphs of 3D and vfx innovation such as “Avatar” and “Life of Pi,” though conceived along less fantastical, more grimly realistic lines, “Gravity” is at once classical and cutting-edge in its showmanship, placing the most advanced digital filmmaking techniques in service of material that could hardly feel more accessible.
At once the most realistic and beautifully choreographed film ever set in space, Gravity is a thrillingly realized survival story spiked with interludes of breath-catching tension and startling surprise.
Gravity, by the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón is a brilliantly tense and involving account of two stricken astronauts; a howl in the wilderness that sucks the breath from your lungs.
Comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi are inevitable and well-earned, but in fact, Gravity operates as a companion piece to Cuarón’s last film, Children of Men, which played at Venice seven years ago.
It may not sound like high praise that I had no sense of timing throughout this thrillingly brief 91-minute film, but I imagine you can’t feel the minutes ticking by in space either. The immersive rhythmic continuity of Lubezki’s camerawork and Cuarón and Mark Sanger’s deceptively tight editing is such that it’s hard to mentally organize the film into scenes and sequences after the fact.
This is a thrilling and moving rollercoaster of a movie that will appeal to space geeks and romantics alike.
However, when it comes to whether or not Gravity has more to offer moviegoers than an audacious cinematic thrill ride - with Bullock and Clooney delivering strong performances as the human anchors - there appears to be some discrepancy among these early critiques. Reviewers seem to have conflicting opinions, as some appear to feel that Gravity suffers from the occasional screenwriting short cut; not to mention, a refusal to acknowledge the overt existential and spiritual implications of its story. Others, however, seem to argue that there is substance there, but it's just more subtle than is customary for this sort of auteur-fare:
The film comes as close as most of us are likely to get to actually being in space (undoubtedly aided by the 3D: this is one film that’s really worth paying the extra bucks for to see in the format, whether the lens is capturing a tiny spinning speck in the distance or debris flying in your face). But it shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere rollercoaster ride — even if your instinct, as at a theme park, is to finish the experience and line up again for another go.
There will be little disappointment from audiences who are likely to be thrilled by the well sustained edge-of-the-seat thrills as this space-bound film follows the well-worn disaster movie format and keeps things tense right up until the final scenes.
A decade after collaborating on Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (2003), Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron and British producer David Heyman have combined forces again on Gravity, a 3D survival thriller set in deepest, darkest space. The new film... is a visual triumph even if its storytelling is less than sure-footed.
There are glimmers of artifice, too, in the script’s conception of Stone... It’s the one on-the-nose element in a screenplay that, given its rigorous intelligence in all other departments, might have done well to trust the audience to stay invested in Stone’s journey without the benefit of an emotional hook.
For some viewers, that will be a good thing, as it avoids pretention and self-seriousness; for others, its refusal to acknowledge the eternal mysteries, to be anything more than a thrillingly made, stripped-down suspense drama, will relegate it to good-but-not-great status.
Ruined satellites pitch and yaw. Shrapnel zips through the darkness like shoals of silver fish. As the screening wraps up, the delegates are politely instructed to return their spectacles to an usher and not leave them on the seat. Gravity, after all, offers a stark warning of the dangers of debris, clutter and human waste.
But by the end, you realise you have mentally sketched in two commas to make sense of the film’s deep-down, soul-fattening theme. Yes: life, in space, is impossible. But mankind was not built for solitude, and in a wide, empty universe, the yearning for human-to-human contact is a force as powerful and inescapable as the one that keeps our feet bound to the planet.
In conclusion, it sounds as though the initial critical consensus for Gravity is similar to that for the people who saw the rough cut version a year ago: no one denies that Cuarón has pulled off a daring feat of 3D filmmaking, but there's disagreement over whether or not Gravity is equally philosophical as a 3D film such as Life of Pi (albeit, more quietly meditative). Regardless, everyone so far seems to agree that the project is worthy of a recommendation.
Gravity opens in 2D and select 3D/IMAX theaters in the U.S. on October 4th, 2013.
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