News Column

The entertainment value of gravity

October 4, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 04--BEIRUT -- The digital revolution has been an ambivalent thing for cinema. Many filmmakers have used high-definition video to liberate themselves from the expense of film.

Digital media have also allowed consumers to spend their evenings sprawled before LED screens, watching DVDs and downloads -- confronting exhibitors with the challenge of how to ensure that movie theaters remain a viable business.

While producers have sought to use elite formats like IMAX and 3-D to lend more weight to the blockbuster, many exhibitors have put their faith in transforming "a night at the pictures" into a more exclusive experience, retooling the theater into a business class airport lounge with a screen.

Unfortunately, blockbusters are rarely great cinema. If the quality of a film was tallied in terms of wanting to view it a second time -- as opposed to tolerating it during long-haul flights or bouts of insomnia -- most contemporary blockbusters are outright failures.

Every now and then, however, a smart filmmaker happens upon the right story and the technical means to visualize that story more effectively than before. Such films leave you with some hope that an intelligent commercial cinema, one that can't be reproduced in your living room, is possible.

This thought lingers in the wake of Alfonso Cuaron's space thriller "Gravity." Since the film's premieres at Venice and Toronto, it has raised a dust storm of critical accolades -- embracing the long-awaited return of Cuaron (who helmed the 2006 cult hit "Children of Men") and the star turns of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as much as the film's feats of digital postproduction.

So "Gravity" was a good choice for the opening night of the Beirut International Film Festival, at Cinema Abraaj Wednesday evening.

Cuaron shot his movie for 3-D, and anyone who hadn't experienced the grungy indie-film humanism of "Children of Men" might expect the visuals of "Gravity" to be as opportunistic as those of a "Harry Potter" sequel. Those who have seen "Children," and recall its "end of days" premise, might expect the plot of "Gravity" to be as hefty as its special effects budget.

The writer-director (Cuaron co-wrote with his son Jonas) avoids both traps. The thematic grace notes adorning this simple tale are mundane-sentimental, not celestial-philosophical.

"Gravity" is science fiction, with the vast majority of the story set in low Earth orbit, and Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki delight in having projectiles appear to fly from the screen into your goofy 3-D specs. Yet the camera zooms on a character's face as frequently as it gazes into the void.

"Gravity" commences in orbit. Following the echoes of in-flight conversation with Mission Control, a U.S. space shuttle emerges from the night shadow. Its robotic arm clutches the Hubble Space Telescope, where a pair of astronauts are working.

Both scientists are still new to space. Sharif (Phaldut Sharma) is overwhelmed by the childlike fun of zero gravity, while Stone (Sandra Bullock) feels disoriented and nauseous -- something Mission Control is monitoring and clucks about in her headset.

The only human character to emerge from this tableau of orbiting technology is that of Kowalski (George Clooney), the veteran pilot on his last space mission. He flits about the edges of the work site with his jet pack, country-and-western music blaring from his headset. The touchstone of his incessant standup routine of tall tales is the remark, "Huston, I've got a bad feeling about this mission" -- an allusion to the Apollo 13 disaster that is as irreverent as it is portentous.

Kowalski is mulling over his plans to shatter the world record for the longest space walk, presently held by a Russian cosmonaut, when Mission Control informs the crew that a Russian satellite has exploded, sending a potentially lethal storm of rubble into orbit. When that rubble ignites a chain reaction of exploding satellites, the team's Hubble mission is abruptly aborted.

The debris sweeps through on the first of several catastrophic passes, and in the ensuing chaos Stone spirals into space, her panicked gasping soon depleting most of her oxygen supply. Thanks to his trusty jet pack, Kowalski retrieves her. Returning to the debris of the shuttle, they confirm that they are alone and must improvise a way home.

The visual effects of "Gravity" are impressive. Surpassing standard-issue space effects, Cuaron and his team have devised the means to convey the impression of zero gravity -- where the laws of force and inertia work differently, making the terror of high-impact collision somehow more visceral.

Moving seamlessly from the perspective of a detached third-person observer to extreme close-ups of the protagonist's face, to assume that of the protagonist himself, Lubezki's camera evokes the frustrating, anxiety-inducing effect of free fall. The astronauts are on a mission to repair the Hubble, but the camera's gaze (and therefore the characters') is less likely to seek out the echoing void of the cosmos than the lovely, terribly near, Earth surface.

Complementing the awe and alienation that these visual effects can provoke is the film's casting. "Gravity" is aided in no small part by the fact that the principal human faces seeking to find their way home are those of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

The centrality of these bankable celebrities in the mix reiterates the obvious. "Gravity" is neither a documentary nor a philosophical treatise but an entertainment. The feature of the film that shines through the visual effects is that, at root, it works with a time-tested moviemaking formula.

The pairing of cocksure veteran (usually a man) with emotionally fragile tenderfoot (ordinarily a woman) has worked well in innumerable movies -- not least in romantic comedies -- and there are strong elements of cornball romantic comedy in this script.

The writing is the most ambiguous feature of "Gravity." On one hand, the Cuarons were wise in keeping the film's thematic concerns -- as echoed in the characters' exchanges -- grounded in our world. That said, some of the stuff that issues from the protagonists will make even the most indulgent viewer roll his eyes.

If there is a facet of the writing that should be acknowledged, it is the Cuarons' midnarrative flirtation with deus ex machina. This plot twist, best kept vague here, is utterly cheesy if read at face value -- which is how it satisfies the needs of audience entertainment. Yet no discerning viewer could possibly read it at face value, allowing audience sceptics a way to escape "Gravity" without feeling insulted.

"Gravity" will have its theatrical release in Beirut later this month. BIFF continues until Oct. 10. For more information, see beirutfilmfestival.org.

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(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

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