The buzz around director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men) Gravity has been deafening for a few years as various actresses (Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman) have been bandied about before Sandra Bullock was signed to play a rookie astronaut who is stranded with another astronaut (George Clooney; Robert Downey Jr. had been talked up) after a catastrophic disaster destroys their space shuttle.
After debuts at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals the reviews have have been laudatory, but this led me to wonder if we were getting another Pacific Rim in which a somewhat overrated Mexican director with an overpraised career delivers a nerd-bait movie to rapturous applause unwarranted by the end product with even the most enthusiastic fans admitting the characters are thin. Fortunately, Gravity is much better than Pacific Rim, though there are a few issues.
A cut-to-the-bone 90 minutes long (but feeling about half that), Gravity asks audiences to accept a few fudges in its premise in exchange for the thrill ride. Our space shuttle program has been over for years; the International Space Station and a Chinese station (that I didn't even know existed and thought was made up) are nowhere near the orbit of the Hubble telescope; and why a medical doctor is responsible for a device being adapted for astronomy are all complaint-bait for HARDCORE science nerds, but are necessary conceits to support the roller coaster ride Cuarón puts you on. If you find yourself realizing you haven't been breathing for a while, join the club.
Since the premise is clear in the trailer below - bad thing makes for bad day, fight to survive ensues, someone lives or doesn't - all that's left are the details and if you've been following any of the press about Bullock's performance alone you can sorta guess that ol' Georgie doesn't make it to the last reel and since it's highly unlikely a studio is going to spend tens of millions on a space disaster flick in which America's Sweetheart dies a slow and agonizing or fast and fiery death, that question become one of manner of her survival, not whether she'll survive. (Hey, you knew Titanic was going to sink going in, right?) There are also a few obvious "symbolism" moments that call too much attention to themselves.
A little attempt to give her a back story which casts some question over her will to survive is done, but it's not as if it's a serious question. That said, Bullock does an excellent job drawing us past the artifice of the script's missteps. Of all the candidates for the role, I think she was the best choice. As awesome an actress as Jolie is (she's sorta cute, too), I can't see her being that put out by her spaceship being destroyed. I mean we're talking about a woman who can curve bullets fercryingoutloud! "Spaceship gone? Pshaw! I'll fly home myself!"
Which leads to the true centerpiece of the experience: the stunning, 3D, let's-just-give-them-the-Oscar-now visual effects. I want the Blu-ray with extensive making-of featurettes NOW because if you look at this gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and realize that pretty much the only thing used was the actors' faces, it's mind-boggling. Or it should be, because it wasn't for me at the show I caught. (More in a moment on that.) All the usual tells of wire work etc are missing and with Bullock in a tight tank top and underwear like this...
...it's hard to suss how they got her floating, but it works.
I saw the very first show of the day in the room I saw it and for some reason the picture was dim and fuzzy. Because it opens with a 13-minute-long single shot, it wasn't as if I could run out and complain, so I was stuck with grays instead of bright whites and flattened 3D effects, especially when it was very dark on the shadow side of the planet. I complained to the manager afterwards and he went and checked the projector and returned admitting that it wasn't bright enough and giving me a pass to come back anytime. Gee, thanks. You had shows late last night and today and no one bothered to notice if the projector was cranked up sufficiently.
Because I didn't truly SEE the movie dampened my mood about the whole thing and perhaps this score is too low. It's 10 hours later as I write this and I still want to punch the projectionist who only had one job to do. I wrote a complaint letter to the theater chain management explaining that I drove twice as far to their theater because I prefer it and generally have a good experience, but such sloppiness isn't very reassuring for future excursions, especially after seeing Metallica: Through The Never a couple weeks ago.
While my experience was weighed down by poor management, Gravity manages to soar beyond its occasional cliches and deliver an experience worth the trip.
Score: 8/10. See a matinee in 3D in a properly set-up theater.