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Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity’ Rekindles Wonder of Cinema

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CHICAGO – There used to be a stronger sense that films could take us someplace new. From the days of audience members screaming at the train coming at the camera because they didn’t understand that they wouldn’t be run over to Dorothy’s trip to Oz to young Skywalker’s family problems, movies captured a sense of wonder that’s been lost in an era when CGI is in KFC commercials and it feels like Hollywood has run out of new places to take us. This sense of spectacle returns in Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning “Gravity,” a movie that transcends form and becomes an “experience.” It is a technical marvel that moves beyond many of the recent visual effects stunners like “Life of Pi” and “Avatar” by giving you a heroine with whom to identify, cheer for, and sit beside. It’s a great film, one of the best of 2013.

The first, unbroken shot of “Gravity,” before the action really kicks in, is arguably its most impressive because that’s where the awe first kicks in. Cuaron slowly opens his film with a shot of what will be the background of the majority of the movie – the planet Earth from space. It’s a long, slow shot, into which comes a little dot that we realize is a space shuttle. Even that massive machine that we’ve seen takeoff so many times is miniscule compared to space and the planet below it.

We pan in on three astronauts repairing a satellite. Sarcastic veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) jet packs around colleague Shariff (Paul Sharma) and newcomer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who has developed the technology that needs to be physically uploaded to space. For an amazing amount of time, Cuaron shoots without edits, circling the astronauts like a fourth participant in the project. The camera seems to move at a similar trajectory as Matt in his jet pack, making us feel like we’re right there in a place that we will certainly never be. Cuaron doesn’t show you something, he transports you there and makes you feel in the moment.

Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

And then all Hell breaks loose. As Ryan and Matt learn from Mission Control (brilliantly voiced by Ed Harris in a nod to “Apollo 13”), a missile accidentally hit a satellite, creating debris that was then thrown into Earth’s orbit, hitting other satellites, and just getting worse as it speeds toward our heroes. Before they can get to safety (although there’s really no such thing in space), Ryan is loose, spinning around the planet. And you, the viewer, are mesmerized, terrified, and about to go on one of the most remarkable journeys in film history.

There’s not a single wasted minute in “Gravity.” It is a high-speed, 90-minute bullet train of adrenalin, especially in 3D IMAX, where you have to be dead not to feel your heart racing. It is also a film that’s so well-made that you start to take it for granted. It’s hard to explain but you forget at a certain point that virtually EVERYTHING you’re watching is a special effect. In our cynical times, it may be hard to believe with the out-there plot of “Gravity,” but Cuaron’s greatest accomplishment is that he has made one of the most technically complex pieces of cinema ever and yet you forget you’re watching a movie. Even in films like “Avatar,” you’re always aware of the technology. In “Gravity,” the technology slips away and you get invested in the story, letting the adrenalin and fight for human life overtake what was created by a computer.

Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

It helps greatly that Sandra Bullock gives the performance of her career as Ryan Stone. Whereas so many actresses would have turned into melodramatic, sobbing messes in this role, overplaying the emotion of the part, Bullock never registers as false. She invests so much character into Stone merely through a few revelations about her past tragedies and the believable degree of fear with which she portrays Ryan that you feel like you’re sitting right there with her. It’s a stunning performance. Clooney isn’t bad although if “Gravity” has a flaw it’s that his character sometimes plays it a little too “Clooney Cool.” I wanted his imperfections to be revealed alongside Ryan’s.

To say that’s a minor complaint would be an understatement. There are no significant complaints to be levied at “Gravity,” a truly important piece of moviemaking. Yes, important. The era of 3D CGI has drained some of the humanity from cinema in the last few years. The irony is that by adding a third dimension to so many movies, the technology became so apparent that films actually became less believable. The genius of “Gravity” is that a filmmaker who always found the human story even in high-concept films like “Children of Men” did so again in a film that’s such a technical marvel. The most important film of 2013 in terms of special effects is also one of its most human, emotional stories. That’s the wonder of cinema.

“Gravity” stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It was written by Jonas & Alfonso Cuaron and directed by Alfonso Cuaron. It opens tomorrow, October 4, 2013.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

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