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‘Gravity’s Special Effects Are Tremendous, But It’s Also A Smart, Tense Character Study

By Alyssa Rosenberg on October 4, 2013 at 9:04 am

"‘Gravity’s Special Effects Are Tremendous, But It’s Also A Smart, Tense Character Study"

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I’m happy to be the umpteeth person to tell you to go see Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, about an engineer (Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone) and an astronaut (George Clooney as Matt Kowalski) who are set adrift by an accident and must try to survive in space with limited oxygen, on as big a screen as possible. The movie’s sense of movement, whether Ryan and Matt are doing routine work on a space station, towing each other to safety, being tumbled terrifyingly through space, or piloting Soyuz capsules, is remarkable–astronaut Buzz Aldrin described himself as “so extravagantly impressed” by that element of the film. And Gravity is one of only a handful of films I’ve ever seen that makes me feel like the writers and directors fully comprehended 3D capacity as an artistic tool and had real, intelligent command of it.

But what’s stuck with me in the days since I saw the movie, and stuck with me in a way I hadn’t anticipated given some cliches that appeared in the script, was the extent to which this extraordinary move is simultaneously a grand visual spectacle and a very small character study, and a fascinating meditation on the power of talk.

When we first meet Ryan and Matt, she’s a novice, working hard to repair and reboot a piece of malfunctioning apparatus, and he’s a veteran, bopping around in apparatus and making jokes about margaritas while keeping an eye on how close he is to breaking the record for longest cumulative spacewalk. Matt’s a happy chatterbox who rotates through a series of stories about his mythic adventures, who tells Houston that one of their colleagues, having just completed some task, “appears to be doing some form of the Macarena.” He’s keenly attuned to the wonders of being in space, but that doesn’t prevent him from acting as if he’s holding court in a very grounded bar. Ryan, by contrast, is quiet and focused. “I was just happy they didn’t cut the funding for my research,” she tells Matt at some point.

But that turns out to be only one of the reasons Ryan doesn’t talk much: for her, space isn’t as much of a void as the one she faces down on earth, an emptiness that is never fully explained, but is richly and deeply felt. “What do you like about being up here?” Matt asks her. “The silence,” Ryan tells him. “I could get used to this.”

When a cloud of debris knocks them loose from the station, however, Matt’s gift of gab turns out to be a life-saving tool. The ability to hear someone else in your earpiece is a crucial link to sanity. It has biological effects, too: Matt’s able to talk Ryan down from the panicked breathing that’s depleting her oxygen, giving her enough time to survive the trip to the International Space Station. And in the process, he manages to draw Ryan out a bit by asking her what “the good people of Lake Zurich,” her hometown on Earth are doing at 8PM local time. The reason Ryan ultimately fled into space is prosaic, and she says as much when she tells the story, explaining to Matt that “It was the stupidest thing.” There are a number of moments of catharsis in the movie, but for me, none so powerful as the one in which Ryan, who tried to drown herself in silence, opens herself up to the power of her voice, and her own internal monologue.

The gift of Gravity is that it makes the “stupidest thing,” the most basic facts of the Earth’s solidity, the force of gravity itself, into lovely, remarkable things. The real reason to see Gravity on the largest screen available to you, and in 3D is because it’s the rare movie that has a real sense of wonder, not simply about what the Earth looks like from space, but about the lives we live on the ground.

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