Thursday 12 September 2013

TIFF 2013 - Gravity

The biggest complaint I've heard about Gravity is that it doesn't feel like a film. In other words, it's more like a video game or an amusement park ride than something you would normally see in your local movie theatre. You certainly can't get away from the fact that there are gobs of CGI in it and that there are obvious reality-stretching thrill ride aspects. There are sequences specifically designed to ratchet up the tension to new levels of intensity - so much so that you might still be unclenching your toes hours later. So what's wrong with that you ask? Well, nothing...

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (in its non-IMAX 3-D version at least) is a wholly immersive experience. It's sole purpose is to put its two high-priced charming stars into impossible-to-escape scenario after impossible-to-escape scenario upping the ante each time to see if you can hold your breath a few seconds longer and grip that arm rest a little tighter. From that point of view - especially if you enjoy that kind of thing - it's an astonishing success. That aforementioned tension steadily increases from the use of exceedingly long "takes" - a Cuaron trademark, but certainly much more stitched together than ever before here - and a raging score and sound field. It has the effect of dropping you into their desperation and panic without promise of getting out the other side.

When I say "their", I really should qualify that to only Sandra Bullock's character Ryan Stone. She is accompanying a space shuttle crew to perform some of her experiments, but only has about 6 months of training under her belt. George Clooney plays Matt Kowalsky, one of the astronauts who coolly jet packs around the shuttle during the opening spacewalk of the film and stays equally as cool throughout the pandemonium that follows. So Stone's reflexes, ability to calm her breathing and ease with the jet pack are somewhat less than Kowalsky's - which plonks us right there into her space boots (especially when the camera goes in and then back out of her space helmet). Though it took me a few minutes to settle into that opening spacewalk (getting attuned to the 3D surroundings, adjusting to what I felt were a few wonky CGI bits, etc.), I was fully engrossed by the time the first Houston warning of some potential danger came. And then, with still yet a single cut in the film, we're thrown into crisis mode. Though that first 10-15 minute single "shot" is actually composed of hundreds of different pieces, the planning and orchestration of it is a phenomenal achievement.

Of course, that shouldn't mean anything when it comes to your enjoyment of the experience. Did you get sucked in? Did you feel nervous? Were you there with Bullock? That's what Cuaron is trying to do and it worked in spades for me. There are several moments that don't work as well - Bullock's howling with the dogs moment doesn't work and Clooney is just too damn charming sometimes - but for me it was all easily forgiven. The ebbs and flows of tension are timed to give you just enough of a rest - but not too much - before the next wave of crisis arrives. The score is perhaps overpowering at times, but it served its purpose exceedingly well. Like a great amusement park ride you've just been on with your friends, I (and many other people) wanted to get right back in line and do it all over again. I just needed a few extra minutes for my muscles to relax and my toes to get back to normal.

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