TIFF 2013 Review: GRAVITY, An Experience Like No Other

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
TIFF 2013 Review: GRAVITY, An Experience Like No Other
You're going to hear a lot about this film, gushing hyperbole about how Alfonso Cuarón has created a new masterpiece of such wonderful elegance that it's a sight to behold.

You'll hear that it's the best set-in-space film of all time. You might hear talk of the lengths they surely went through filming the thing. Talk will turn to awards for the film's megastars and their taut performances, to the wonderful POV shots, the amazing use of the physics of near-Zero gravity, and the stunning visuals.

Some will complain of vertigo seeing the thing. People may hail it as a new cinema, a brave new way of merging spectacle and intelligence, a paradigmatic shift on the order of Kubrick's 2001 mixed with the Lumiére's L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat.

Yet no words can truly express the experience of Gravity. For the film truly is an experience like no other; a supreme example of deft storytelling merged with astonishing imagery.

I'll provide my own hyperbole here: In many ways, Gravity is the film that cinema was born to make. It echoes the dreams of Meliés writ on a modern giant canvas, yet does so with such impeccable restraint that like the lead characters it will leave you breathless.

This element, Cuarón's restraint will likely get overlooked by some, but it's worth applauding as much as the film's mighty visuals. This is a 93 minute film that tells an eloquent story within a conventional running time. We are not driven to need to linger at any point, there's no fat on the film's frame, no moment that rings untrue. We have an extraordinarily well crafted script that keeps things moving apace while at times toying with expectations, but never allowing us to feel that we're just hanging around for the next drama to happen. Like the capsules and stations that are the film's setting, this is a beautifully engineered construction, free from filigree or ornamentation.

Yes, Bullock is fantastic. I frankly had little hope for the performer when I saw her early in her career, but in this role all her recent plaudits are more than deserved. Clooney I've been a fan of since the beginning, and his contribution here is immeasurable, his calm drawl and quirky demeanor absolutely note perfect within this setting.

As for the extraordinary visuals, once again words fail. Since a very young age like many of my generation our dream was to visit space, to see the earth's curvature for ourselves. I'm an avid scuba diver, and this sense of floating in vastness is as close as I get to leaving our terrestrial plane. One of the things that occurs with diving are those things just outside your grasp - you can see in the distance some element, some object, it's tantalizingly close, yet to reach out for it would be disaster. Diving gives you the sense of almost superhuman control of your position within three dimensional space, you're flying like a super hero above a plane far below, yet often with a subtle breath or twitch of your hand you can maneuver not unlike a spacecraft.

This sense of freedom is restricted - as much as you'd like to go further down or out you're contantly aware of your limitations. This combination of being able to do wonders, yet still held back, provides a weird kind of tension. When things go wrong, as I've lived through, there's a sense of utter panic that's fairly unique. Our landlocked brains are set to deal with problem solving in our own environment, so when things go pear shaped in another environment there's an even more palpable terror.

It's a panic born from looking out and seeing salvation right there, and simply not being able to reach out far enough, fighting against our own limitations as bags of meat and the inexorable natural forces that dictate just what we can or cannot do. It's an otherworldly panic, literally. It's the panic of Spielberg's Jaws where the head pops from under the boat, the horror of something occurring in an already disturbing environment.

It's clearly no surprise that Gravity is a film about equal and opposite reactions, about the limitations and the possibilities, about the tenaciousness and fragility of human beings. We see the wonders we can build, and the powers that can destroy them.

And, yes, it's beautiful to look at. This is simply the reason that 3D cinema has been developed - forget your dismissal of uncomfortable glasses or complaints about dim projection, find yourself an IMAX or appropriately giant screen and revel in this this apotheosis of cinematic wonder. Cuarón stereographic team seems as capable as the rest of the extraordinary technicians and artists that brought this film to life.

As for the cinema nerds, well, you'll be in heaven, literally. The opening shot alone is drool worthy, a single take that would make both Wells and Welles weep. Yet none of this feels particularly gimmicky - these flourishes are entirely story based, ways of engaging the viewer with the events at hand without the need for montage. Broken apart from the whole, these bravado sequences (like many in Children of Men) will be studied for years, yet as part of the elegant whole they very much feel as part of the piece. You're never taken out of the film to become aware of a given camera move, never patted on the shoulder to look at the craft of what's on screen. Call it a professional hazard, I sometimes pay attention to such things regardless, and when you recognize just what's being assembled in front of you it makes your head shake.

The audio space, too, is an exercise in precision - sweeping pans situate our characters in audio space (64+ channel Atmos will be a dream!), while the "thudding" of direct-contact sound makes up for the silence of vacuum. Sound is transmissive rather than prescriptive in this film, its reactions felt more than heard, as interactions provide the connections while letting go leaves us deafened. The orchestral soundtrack too plays a remarkably retrained role, coming in when needed, but rarely doing more than a gentle push to underscore a given emotion, or to provide some almost subliminal cacophony to when visually things erupt.

Gravity proves to be just as powerful a cinematic experience as even the highest of expectations can expect. In this wonderfully contained story, we're able to explore the power of this narrative and its physical and philosophical implications without needing to bloat out the tale to provide a sense of some import. This is a popcorn film that still rivals the most sublime art project, a movie-for-the-masses with an astonishing clarity of vision.

What the film is not is "incredible" - the film is wonderfully credible, and any nitpicks about orbital mechanics will surely miss the point. It's a film you could watch a dozen times like a themepark ride, each time becoming even more fulfilled, yet the draw of the picture isn't just its dizzying setting, it's the overt demonstration of our ability to overcoming the seemingly impossible forces set against us through guile and ingenuity.

Quite simply, Gravity is an instant classic. It is the type of project that reflects just what cinema can do that no other art form can, and it does it in a way that no other film has done before.
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