Thursday, October 10, 2013

Appreciating the Experience -- Reflections on "Gravity" (2013)

Writing about movies you love is quite challenging when everyone seems to love them for the same reasons you do. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is one of these films. Since its release last week, every corner of the internet has been heaping superlatives at its feet. This makes it tough sharing the film’s points of greatness – the mesmerizing special effects, the intensity of the soundtrack, Sandra Bullock’s performance, Cuarón’s insistence on lengthy shot durations that spring his cinematic world to life – without coming across as derivative…

Yet, regardless of these shared praises and plaudits, I loved the experience. Gravity is one of the few films in which I have felt inclined to shut my mind down and simply enjoy the action. I became engrossed in the survival story of Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), who clings on to life, despite having very little to live for back on earth. With each passing moment, my heart wrenched, my gut cinched, and my eyes waltzed across Cuarón’s elegant compositions. After the film, I posted on Facebook, “This is why I go to the movies.” Gravity is such an amazing, visceral experience that when it was over, I was breathless and exhausted.

That breathlessness begins with an elaborate 12-minute opening shot that floats impossibly in space. The camera weaves and bobs and dances, keeping a deep focus as objects and people come into its orbit. The film begins in extreme long shot, eventually maneuvers into an extreme close up of a hand grasping a floating bolt, and finally chronicles the savage destruction of the Hubble space telescope. Combining the risk of working in space with the grandeur of hovering hundreds of miles above earth is overwhelming. Space is beautiful, but so are spider webs, and their beauty often masks a terrible trap. Leaving the film, I found my mind wandering into these thoughts, like a 12-year old looking at the stars and thinking about seeing them up close and personal.

The movie that follows is a roller coaster. It climbs, it drops, it spirals, it flips, it exhilarates. At 90 minutes, there is little time to catch your breath and reflect. The experience is rapturous, and it is a ride I want to go on again.

This is not to say, though, that the film is without a brain. Quite the opposite. Part of the joy is the thoughts that come after the film ends; reliving the imagery still seared on your memory.

One of the most enduring images is that of Dr. Stone coiled into a fetal position shortly after getting to safety the first time. The obvious embryonic symbol is nonetheless gorgeous, appropriate, and speaks to our desire to be made whole through nurturing. Dr. Stone is a woman haunted by losing a child to a senseless accident, and she has entered space as a broken woman, trying to fix a broken telescope. Yet, once the situation worsens, she longs to return to the safety of the womb, where she can hope to be born again. Bullock’s impressive performance brought tears to my eyes.

The final image of Dr. Stone emerging from the muddy waters after nearly drowning is a stunning parallel to the fetal image earlier in the film. She comes full circle, and arises, wobbly as a day old colt, from the waters renewed and whole. Some have claimed that this film is too simple, as if having a straightforward narrative is a problem, but images like these evoke something elemental within us, reminding us of what we all long for as human beings – to have a place in this world, to be whole and cleansed.

Cuarón’s masterpiece is primordial, and does not speak to the head, or heart, but to the soul. This is why I love the film. Just like Dr. Stone, I, too, wanted to live after going on this perilous journey. And that is why I love going to the movies. At their finest, they make us thirst for life, love, and liberty. This is what Gravity did to me, and as I finish this review, I suddenly realize I no longer care if anyone else has said the same. 

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