Gravity


In space, nobody can hear you scream "OH CRAP!!!!"

In space, nobody can hear you scream “OH CRAP!!!!”

(2013) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris (voice), Phaldut Sharma (voice), Orto Ignatiussen (voice), Amy Warren (voice), Basher Savage (voice). Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Some movies go for a visceral experience, using special effects to bedazzle and wow their audience. Others go for an emotional experience, using the dialogue and characters to create a response in their audience. It is a rare thing for filmmakers to attempt both in the same film.

Gravity is a game-changer in almost every sense of the word. Here, we are treated to a magnificent view of a space shuttle mission drifting in space with the curve of planet Earth hanging above them. It is breathtaking in and of itself. The mission to make some software updates and minor repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope is commanded by Matt Kowalski (Clooney), an affable, devilishly handsome country music fan on his last mission hoping to break a Russian cosmonaut’s record for longest space walk. With him is Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a mission specialist on her first trip into the great big out there. Kowalski is testing a brand new thruster pack that is working much better than the repairs and upgrade to the Hubble are.

Then Mission Control (Harris) orders them back to the shuttle for an emergency evacuation. It seems that the Russians have spontaneously decided to destroy one of their spy satellites but in typical Russian fashion haven’t really thought it through. The resulting explosion set off a chain reaction of debris impacting other satellites which in turn sends off more debris to impact more satellites. Small pieces of satellite are hurtling through orbit at speeds faster than bullets, wiping out everything in their path. GPS and communications satellites are going down rapidly as the debris approaches the shuttle and its crew.

The shuttle and the Hubble are destroyed in a silent, spectacular spray of debris. Only Ryan and Matt survive the initial disaster but they are far from out of the woods. Their ride home destroyed, they will need to find some other means of getting back. The International Space Station is near enough by that they can use the Soyuz craft as a lifeboat but that too has been hit by debris, leaving only a Chinese space station as a last hope. Dr. Stone, living with her own tragedy and with little experience, must summon up every bit of training she’s received and every ounce of courage she possesses to find a way back home against all odds.

Let’s look at the visual aspect of the film first – in a word, stunning. I think it’s safe to say that this is the most immersive special effects experience in any movie since Avatar. You are brought into a world that is made utterly believable and real and at the same time utterly alien. While in Avatar that world was Pandora, here it is outer space. You never for an instant doubt that these are astronauts floating in the weightlessness of zero gravity. It is an astonishing achievement of special effects. Don’t be surprised if there are Oscars awarded for it in February.

The collisions of debris and machine take place in absolute silence. Since sound doesn’t travel in space this is as it should be. It is also completely terrifying. Don’t let the sounds of collisions on the trailer fool you – the studio insisted on them for the trailer but they are absent in the final film. We are often treated to the point of view of Dr. Stone, seeing things through her helmet. We see her breath fogging the helmet glass; see the panic in her eyes and the spinning of her horizon as she hurtles through space in the initial cataclysm. It is breathtaking in its simplicity, devastating in consequence as the audience gradually realizes what these shots mean. The enormity of what these characters face is unstated; it is left to the imagination of the audience to conjure up their own conclusions.

Looking at the emotional aspect, we have to first start with Bullock. This is clearly her movie and she is the avatar of the audience, representing us in the film. She is inexperienced because we are as well; it is far more effective to have her trying to guess and figure out what to do rather than see things through the eyes of Kowalski who is better trained. He is there mainly to offer encouragement to Dr. Stone and a bit of comic relief here and there.

As impressive as the special effects are, this is a very human film. As we see the astronauts struggle to survive and figure out a way against all hope to get back home, we see our own struggle to survive in a world just as inhospitable and unforgiving and cold as that of outer space. We become invested in Dr. Stone and in no small part due to Bullock’s performance. This may well be her crowning achievement as an actress; it’s note-perfect capturing the flaws and frailties of a character who is brilliant but terrified. She is in fact brilliant enough to imagine the negative outcome of what is happening to her. Clooney gets to essentially play himself; wise-cracking and devilishly handsome but entirely competent at what he does.

In a nice little grace note, Cuaron casts Ed Harris to be the voice of Mission Control; Harris also played Flight Director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13. That aside, there isn’t much in terms of in-film references to please the fanboy contingent which I think has stuck in the craw of some of that ilk.

From a scientific standpoint, Cuaron has said that some liberties were taken with science in order to advance the story – one of the most egregious of these is that the journey from the Hubble to the ISS was not possible with the equipment shown in the film simply because of the distance involved. Simply put, if this had happened for real (and some scientists have warned that it potentially could), the chances are that the astronauts would perish right then and there. That would have made for a depressing film and wasn’t the story that Cuaron wanted to tell. Once again, this isn’t about the effects – it’s about the human beings inside them. From that standpoint, it’s a marvelous film. Whatever your feelings about the space program – gigantic boondoggle or absolute necessity – you will be blown away by the special effects but more importantly you will be moved by the human story, a rare achievement. This is one of the best films of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Phenomenal special effects. Tense, edge-of-your-seat throughout. Bravura performance by Bullock.

REASONS TO STAY: One or two nitpicks.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few images that are pretty rough and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The length of the movie at 90 minutes is exactly the time it takes for the actual International Space Station to make one complete orbit of the Earth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marooned

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Tigger Movie

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Oblivion


 

Morgan Freeman doesn't want Tom Cruise jumping on the couch.

Morgan Freeman doesn’t want Tom Cruise jumping on the couch.

(2013) Science Fiction (Universal) Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo, Zoe Bell, Abigail Lowe, Isabelle Lowe, David Madison, Fileena Bahris, Lindsay Clift, Joanne Bahris, Booch O’Connell, Julie Hardin, Jaylen Moore, Jeremy Sande, Jay Oliver. Directed by Joseph Kosinski   

One wonders why professional critics, who seem to be fairly intelligent and knowledgeable about movies, suddenly seem compelled to spend entire reviews of a movie bashing Tom Cruise and lamenting about his age, his off-screen drama, his acting ability or all of the above.

This movie isn’t about Tom Cruise, it merely stars him. He plays Jack Harper, a glorified repair technician. It’s 2077 and the Earth is essentially a dead planet. Aliens, called Scavs, had invaded the planet some decades earlier and while we won the war we lost the planet. The Scavs blew up the moon, causing massive tidal waves and earthquakes which essentially wiped out a huge chunk of the human race. We in turn launched our nuclear arsenal, destroying the majority of the Scav invading force but rendering most of the planet uninhabitable.

Now the surviving humans live on Titan, with a few still remaining on Earth repairing drones that monitor the planet for the remaining Scavs. Huge intake tanks are pulling up seawater necessary for fusion reactors that mean our survival on Titan. Some live on the Tet (short for Tetrahedron, which is its shape) but others. like Jack, live in cantilevered homes above the clouds; they travel on bubble ships which resemble dragonflies or old-style Bell Helicopters.

Jack and his navigator (who remains in their home and monitors him on a computer console from there) Victoria (Riseborough) have only two weeks left in their tour of duty. Victoria can’t wait to head to Titan but Jack…Jack has misgivings. Jack has doubts. Jack has strange memories of the observation deck at the Empire State Building that he can’t explain, particularly since the Empire State was, like all of New York, wiped out well before Jack was born.

Jack also shouldn’t have memories – his memory, like Victoria’s, was wiped five years ago before his mission started so that important information couldn’t get into the hands of the Scavs. He’s fine with that – duty and honor are big with Jack – but he has nagging questions that he can’t really answer and Sally (Leo) his mission control supervisor in the Tet, isn’t prone to answering them. Jack has found an isolated little valley where there is still water and grass and trees, and a cabin he built there with what trinkets and artifacts he can scavenge which he will miss on Titan most of all. But nothing can prepare Jack for the immense lie he has come to believe and what the truth of what is really out there is. Now Jack is fighting for his planet, along with a mysterious woman (Kurylenko) with connections to his past and a wise leader (Freeman) of a group of survivors who have already figured out the truth – and must convince Jack of that truth or else humanity will fade into the mists of time.

Kosinski’s follow-up to TRON: Legacy is another sci-fi epic. Universal hedged its bets a bit, placing this in an April slot that would shield it from competition with the big summer sci-fi epics which I think was a smart move. There’s plenty of eye candy here from the bubble ships which are hella cool, to the landscapes of ruined Earth which is a clever mixture of desolate Icelandic landscapes and familiar cityscapes from the big Apple.

Cruise does what he needs to do here, and that’s mainly act puzzled. Harper is one of those sorts who was born and bred to be heroic; like the original Mercury 7 or the guys in The Right Stuff his instincts are to do the right thing. That’s right in the wheelhouse of Tom Cruise; few guys can be as charismatic and heroic as he can as he’s proven in films like Jerry Maguire, The Firm and Legend. He has to carry this movie pretty much as he is in virtually every scene so as goes Tom Cruise so goes Oblivion.

He has a pretty decent support cast. Riseborough is a beautiful and talented actress who doesn’t get enough credit from mainstream Hollywood just yet. Freeman and Leo are both proven stars, both Oscar-winning performers who can be counted on to deliver sterling work.

There are a couple of major plot twists here but frankly, you are going to see both of them coming a mile away. The movie really needed a slam-bang ending  but doesn’t get one; it’s more of a fizzle and that’s one of Hollywood’s most grievous sins of late – the inability to write a good ending to a movie.

The gee-whiz factor is up there and with Cruise onscreen most of the time, they get the benefit of having one of Hollywood’s most charismatic stars keeping the audience’s attention riveted where the filmmakers want it. This is a solid movie that will keep your eye candy craving satisfied at least until the summer begins.

REASONS TO GO: Cruise is, whatever else he might be, a compelling star. Pretty cool gadgets and visual effects.

REASONS TO STAY: The twists aren’t particularly hard to figure out. Sputters towards the end.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, a bit of nudity and sexuality and some harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The painting used in the film is “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; about as mixed a reception as you can get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Company We Keep