Gravity

Gravity is one of those films where you are acutely aware of all of the components of moviemaking:  cinematography, sound, special effects, acting, props.  All play key roles in making this space thriller a real gut-punch of a movie that sticks with you.

The story line is simple.  Astronauts are working on equipment in space when disaster strikes, and they have to figure out what to do.  They’re cut off from the world and alone in an impossibly hostile environment.  And that’s where all of the elements of the cinema arts come in.  In these days of blasting soundtracks, how many movies feature absolute silence, or only the sounds of panicky breathing, to help tell the story?  In these days of explosions and superhero epics, how many films require you to watch tiny things, like ice crystals forming on a space helmet?

The zero-gravity environment of space is a perfect setting for jaw-dropping technical wizardry, and Gravity doesn’t disappoint.  The weightlessness special effects looked spot on and, in the case of a tear forming into a tiny drop of water and floating toward the camera, moved the story forward.  Equally impressive was the camera positioning and sets that gave a true sense of the claustrophobic nature of spacecraft and their tininess against the vastness of the universe.

George Clooney is perfectly cast as the wisecracking veteran who falls back on years of astronaut training to develop a game plan on how to respond to the crisis.  Sandra Bullock is a revelation as the first-time space voyager who must draw upon the will to live as she faces challenge after challenge.   Bullock shows an emotional range I didn’t think she had.  And while the physics of their space adventure may be sketchy, thanks to the actors the human story rings true.

Gravity is well worth the price of a ticket.  Just be sure to budget time afterward when you can talk about “how did they do that?”

Some Random Thoughts on 2001

I really enjoyed Richard’s post about 2001:  A Space Odyssey, and it got me to thinking about one of my favorite movies.  (It also is a movie that you really haven’t seen unless you’ve seen it on a big screen.)   I think it could be reasonably argued that 2001 is one of the most influential movies of the last 50 years, for at least two reasons.

First, 2001 ushered in the golden age of movie special effects.  Before 2001, movie special effects were little used and were pretty much confined to Ray Harryhausen pictures or stop-motion effects.  2001 was a quantum leap ahead.  Whether it was the classic space station docking scene, or the weightless pen grabbed by the stewardess on the space shuttle, or the astronauts jogging in a seemingly endless and weightless circle, or the giant fetus floating in Jupiter orbit, the special effects on the movie just blew people away.  2001 seemed to destroy all of the barriers and preconceived notions about what could be depicted, visually, on the big screen.  Thereafter, special effects became hugely important parts of movies — some might argue too important.  In any case, films like The Matrix, The Abyss, The Fifth Element, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Jaws, and countless others owe a great debt of gratitude to 2001.

Second, 2001 seemed to be one of the first movies to fully integrate music and on-screen action.  If you watch movies from the ’50s and before — at least, movies that weren’t musicals — the soundtracks typically are muted, background music, where strings might play in a particularly sappy scene.  In the late ’60s, however, soundtracks began to assume a more prominent role.  In 2001, the soundtrack music really played a crucial role.  Everyone remembers The Blue Danube Waltz and the space station docking scene because it was a perfect marriage of sight and sound.  But the scene where the apes discover that a bone can be used as a weapon as Also Sprach Zarathustra rises to a crescendo, or the creepy “eeeeeeeeeeee” music that is heard during some of the suspenseful scenes, or the sad music that plays as the space ship takes its lonely voyage to Jupiter, are equally stunning and effective uses of music.  Now, the use of music to specifically convey messages and advance storylines is so commonplace that it has invaded TV as well as cinema.  On House, for instance, it is not unusual for the final scene to involve no dialogue, but only a carefully chosen song that plays as the show cuts from character to character as they deal with the events of the preceding hour.

2001 is a masterpiece, and it shows that Stanley Kubrick was a genius.