FILM: ‘Gravity’ proves good horror movies CAN live in deep space

You MUST see the scariest movie of 2013 on a huge screen, in 3D

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“Gravity” is the best horror film of 2013. And this year has actually been a solid year in the genre. There was the surprisingly enjoyable “Evil Dead” and “Maniac” remakes, elegantly-made throwback “The Conjuring,” omnibus “V/H/S 2” and “You’re Next,” which deserved a much better box office than it earned. All of them worked on a higher level than most scary flicks released to theaters.

They’ve got nothing on “Gravity.”

Substitute any famous monster or slasher from the past—Jaws, Freddy Krueger, The Terminator, Michael Myers, Jennifer Lopez in “Gigli”—with the neverending void of space, and there’s the relentless killer who will stop at nothing to end the lives of the main characters. The pre-title opening text even warns the audience: “Life in space is impossible.”

It’s a reading I fully embrace, yet starting there may seem misleading. On the surface, “Gravity” is a science fiction film with an extremely simple story about astronauts clinging to life and floating in space after their space shuttle is destroyed. It’s also an incredibly thrilling action vehicle, utilizing the latest in digital filmmaking techniques to give the audience the closest approximation to actually being in space.. It isn’t contemplative, enigmatic, strictly-for-the-arthouse like “Solaris” or “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The equation goes something like this: special effects porn+rollercoaster ride+universal terror of dying all alone in space = high art & entertainment.

You’ve no doubt already heard an avalanche of praise heaped on the film. It made three successful festival trips last month to Toronto, Telluride and Venice. Most reviews have been glowing. They tend to mention the wonderfully utilized 3D, the near unbearable tension, the photo realistic CGI effects, the strong lead performances by Sandra Bullock and a volleyball named Wils…—wait wrong movie. She’s actually cast alongside the charming as ever George Clooney, but really, Bullock carries the burden of this entire, terrifying film.

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I’ve always found her skills as an actress to be limited, more of an “E-for-effort” type than a genuinely gifted thespian. Yet the public has seemingly been charmed with her for two decades (where she first caught my attention in “Speed”). And she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for “The Blind Side,” though you couldn’t pay me enough to watch that one; I’m sure she’s just fine in it. But Sandra Bullock, an Oscar winner? That always confused me. Now with “Gravity” I still can’t claim to be on #TeamSandra, but I can admit that she’s at least given one knockout performance.

Then there’s the filmmaking by master director Alfonso Cuarón. Reviewers often call this kind of work bravura. That’s overused crittalk for “holy cow how’d he do that?”, akin to saying an actress gives a brave performance instead of just saying, “She gets naked a lot in this movie.” He’s easily one of the most gifted filmmakers working today, combining technical prowess, storytelling ability, innate understanding of what the audience wants and needs, and deeply felt humanistic qualities.

For those who’ve been following Cuarón since his early days as an independent filmmaker in Mexico, his achievement with “Gravity” is simply further proof of his genius. From his feature debut, the Criterion approved “Sólo con tu pareja” (translated as “Only With Your Partner,” but released in America as “Love in the Time of Hysteria”) in 1991 to literary adaptations both classic (“A Little Princess,” “Great Expectations”) and massively popular (the third ‘Harry Potter’ film) sources, on through his two best films “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Children of Men” (though “Gravity” is right up there), he’s been a director admired by critics and film geeks. Yet beyond his “Potter” installment, he’s never had the box office success he’s deserved. That should change with with his latest, a pared-down yet still blockbuster-sized film that should leave audiences talking and blown away.

****

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The director again works with immensely talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (sure to get a sixth Oscar nomination for his innovative work here), who creates a sense of weightlessness with the camera. Since it was shot almost entirely on a soundstage, with CGI filling in the rest, Lubezki uses the freedom that a digital camera allows to roam around space, satellites and the astronauts who are swallowed by it all. There are long takes of such breathless precision and grace that you may feel as if they actually shot this thing in actual space. Extremely long takes can be seen as show-offy and unnecessary, but here they serve a purpose, even though it’s fair if you think they’re just really cool (which they are).

And the pulsing, bombastic score by Steven Price works in tandem with the sound design to create a symbiosis of (sur)reality. The aural elements are as responsible for the immersive quality of the film as the 3D. The silence of space is given the real-deal treatment. Price, a British composer, is a relative newcomer whose work on “Attack the Block” and “The World’s End” put him on the map as one to watch. When the film began and the title “Gravity” emerged in white text against an inky black background, it dawned on me immediately that this was going to be something special, if not sonically insane, which it is. The music became so deafening (many in the audience plugged their ears, in fact) I couldn’t help but think of a classic gag from “The Simpsons.”

The use of video game aesthetics in cinema is typically used as a criticism. With this film and “Children of Men” Cuarón is proving there’s art to be found in these techniques, and their place in cinema is a logical extension, a bridge between the two media that continues to evolve into exciting new forms. Sure, plenty of hacks use these methods in boring, lazy ways. But not Cuarón, or Neill Blomkamp, who’s embraced video game visuals with “District 9” and “Elysium” to great effect. So has Christopher Nolan, Edgar Wright, Gaspar Noé (“Enter the Void”) and Gareth Evans (“The Raid: Redemption”). Hell, even Michael Bay occasionally gets it right, when he’s on point shooting insanely detailed action.

****

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“Gravity” fulfills the promise of “Avatar.” It’s miles ahead of it though in terms of character, storytelling (very simple, but all that’s needed) and use of the immersive quality of modern 3D. The film proves that new forms of filmmaking can lead to the rare “spectacle art film,” a hybrid I’d like to see more of, if done right like this. But the reality is most movies abuse the tool as a gimmick to make more money on ticket prices. No, I can’t even begin to comprehend how Cuarón pulled this off. But that’s OK. There’s a sad absence of a genuine sense of awe these days at the movies. Rarely can something transport you in such a way where you feel as if you’ve actually been to another place.

“Gravity” is scary as hell, but it’s worth the anxiety to experience a sense of the new. for an all-too fleeting 90 minutes, it takes hold and never relents. Proof of what makes cinema unique and vital. You’ll be thankful you went on the ride, even if it gives you nightmares.

NOTES:

Video interview with Alfonso Cuaron

Interesting facts about the making of “Gravity

10 films to watch before & after “Gravity”

A look at the limits of CGI inspired by “Gravity”

Notes on a short film made connected with “Gravity” (SPOILERS)

Essay about the long takes in “Children of Men”

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