TIFF 2013: ‘Gravity’ is a thrilling, jaw-dropping special-effects showcase


Gravity reviewGravity
Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonas Cuarón
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
USA, 2013

In 1902, the French screen pioneer Georges Melies made Le Voyage Dans La Lune, an interstellar breakthrough in special effects and fantastical imagination that beguiled and bewildered audiences. Since that film, the science-fiction genre has passed through evolutionary wormholes every decade or so, due to the pioneering cognition of the likes of Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, and, from a purely technological standpoint, James Cameron, where the very mechanics of cinematic representation and realization are docked with technical advances in optics, film stocks and lenses, or the crushing and retexturing of digital blizzards of zeroes and ones and post-production manipulation as the medium moves from physical celluloid to analog abduction. Arguably the last major change was a mere 4 years ago, with Cameron′s Avatar, where the logarithmic facsimiles and world-building achieved a new standard of photo-digital representation. But swifter advances in progress are occurring, so this year, we’re blessed with another envelope-pushing leap forward: Alfonso Cuarón’s breathless and almost unbearably tense Gravity.

Over 4 long years of what sounds like a mission fraught with mishaps, including the film’s central and potentially unachievable concept ricocheting from studio to studio and suffering major casting difficulties with the likes of Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, and Scarlett Johansson failing to anchor a major role and George Clooney replacing Robert Downey Jr. Principal production finally wrapped in mid-2012, before the vast scale of the post-production embellishments pushed the release date back a full year from November 2012. What Cuarón and his crew have lavished on breakthrough special effects, and on designing and executing incredibly sophisticated and awe-inspiring long takes, they′ve saved on acting: only two principal actors and the disembodied voice of Ed Harris feature in the film. Sandra Bullock is Dr. Ryan Stone, a slightly nervous medical astronomer on her inaugural expeditionary mission to repair a deteriorating telescope high among the heavens, ably accompanied by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney, affable charming) on his final seraphic sortie, serenely determined to break the longest continual EVA world record before he is grounded for good. Disaster strikes when supersonic debris from a malfunctioning satellite decimates the Explorer  shuttle, leaving them stranded and alone with a swiftly eroding air supply, urging them to reach and connect if they have even the slimmest opportunity to survive.


This astounding film unfolds among the distant heavens, with the Earth as a constantly pirouetting presence which dominates the rear planes of the image, a constant reminder of the isolation of the characters and a acute frame of reference for the scale if of the enterprise. Character moments and brief lulls in this galactic rollercoaster—if you suffer from vertigo, you may need a barfbag—build a convincing if slightly facile communion with Stone and Kowalsky, but these respites are a welcome diversion from the frequent long periods of a suffocating, audience shared holding your breath at the on-screen peril before emitting a violent expulsion of oxygen in tension relieving relief, as a shared group experience this was divine in execution and rapport, although you’ll mourn your blood pressure levels and shredded fingernails. An increasingly hostile chain of setbacks and breakthroughs lead the heavenly pioneers from one  emphysematous sequence to another, all underscored by a frantic thematic struggle for survival by yielding untapped reservoirs of strength. Through the biotic, organically long takes Cuarón and his master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki frequently transport the audience into the EVA suits themselves, with point-of-view concatenations continually twisting and celestially turning the human bodies to achieve a weightless grace, with a convincing constant fluttering that makes one wonder how on Earth these effects were achieved.


From a cinematic, visual standpoint, the film is simply stupefying, not just for the digital detail and photorealistic realism soaring through the scenes, but also how Cuarón tells his story with images, with compositions, through a constant anxious momement; Stone compresses into a foetal shape after a specific struggle, emerging chrysalis-like from her constraining armour and shedding her spirit in the process; the umbilical links between man, woman, and the life-sustaining harbours of technology and engineering; the sheer vastness and implacable scale of the vacuum of pan-orbital space; our insect-like relation to our primitive expeditionary activities in such vast and incomprehensible dimensions of the cosmos. The retention of some Hollywood structures are retained in Gravity and may not sit well with some, as a grieving character back story drives forward both function and theme, and Cuarón sharing screenwriting credit with his son Jonas is clearly in thrall of the necessity of empathic identification with the time-limited characters, whilst one specific late transition narrative flourish may well eclipse many of the films formidable technical achievements. Cuarón has offered A Man Escaped as a illustrative influence on the film, and like Bresson his cinema is aligned with acts of redemption, of transcendence, sacrifice and growth, in Gravity the final orbit asserting that in order to survive and no matter how painful you sometimes just have to let go;


The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.

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