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Fantastic Fest 2013: Nordling Reviews GRAVITY!

Published at: Sept. 25, 2013, 12:25 a.m. CST

Nordling here.

I like James Cameron's AVATAR.  It's not a film I have a ton of zeal about, but Cameron tried to "change the game," and while the story is boiler-plate, there's passion in it.  The stories of directors trying to one-up each other cinematically have always fascinated me, and it has resulted in some amazing leaps in narrative cinema.  That need for filmmakers to shift the paradigm, to push the boundaries of what film can do, has brought science fiction films, especially, from the B-movie basement to respectability and wonderous art. 

First off, let me get the hyperbole out of the way.  Is it hyperbole if you truly believe it?  I don't know.  Critics always feel the need to make grand statements about movies they adore, and I'm as guilty as anyone in that regard.  Most of the time, I just want to start the conversation, to provoke, because I love cinema and love talking about it.  I've made all-encompassing statements before, and yeah, I've regretted some of them, but I don't think I'm going to regret this.

GRAVITY is the best science fiction film since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  It pushes the genre to amazing heights, is rich with wonder and emotion, and brings us some of the single most amazing imagery since Dave Bowman entered the infinite.  And before the sci-fi geeks come and castigate me for calling GRAVITY science fiction, I can assure you that is surely the case.  It's speculative, scientific, and it's most assuredly fiction, so I think it meets the criteria.  The gauntlet thrown down by James Cameron's AVATAR has been picked up, and Alfonso Cuarón has carried it farther with GRAVITY than anyone since.

If it was imagery alone, GRAVITY would simply be just another special effects tentpole.  But Cuarón gets such rich performances from George Clooney, and especially from Sandra Bullock, who has never been as good as she is here.  Her Ryan Stone is a spiritual successor to ALIENS' Ripley, a strong woman who may not carry a smart rifle, but comes from tragedy to become an extraordinary person.  She's still fairly inexperienced, but she has Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) to be an anchor for her when she becomes overwhelmed.  Kowalsky loves to talk, and Clooney and Bullock show a nice chemistry in their banter together.  The script by Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón has a nice rhythm to it, with a lot of humor and great character moments.

When a Russian satellite is destroyed in orbit, the debris runs directly into the flight path of space shuttle Explorer.  The impact devastates the ship, leaving both Stone and Kowalsky stranded in space, with Stone's oxygen rapidly depleting.  From there GRAVITY becomes about as intense as movies get; just when you think they're both safe, the situation becomes more desperate. 

Alfonso Cuarón, with his team of special effects artists, shows us the vast emptiness of space, both beautiful and frightening, and simply put, GRAVITY is required viewing in 3D.  It's the first film that I'd say don't even bother to see it in 2D, because it uses the technology in a way that is integral to the story and to the tone.  You're going to want to fork over the extra money, because as an experience, GRAVITY is unlike any film before.  There are scenes when I forgot to breathe, and Cuarón uses the geography of space, and the sound design (or lack of it) for maximum impact.  One particular moment, as Stone perilously tries to find a secure environment and the end of the world is happening behind her, is played in devastating silence, and is utterly terrifying.

The editing is masterful.  There are scenes that last almost fifteen minutes without a single cut, but it isn't showy - the audiences feels truly alone in all the vast emptiness, and the amazing effects work serves the story rather than just being something to look at.  But Cuarón did not create empty spectacle - GRAVITY is full of emotion and the power of the film lies in Bullock's performance, who must carry large stretches of the movie, working with green screen and not interacting with any other actors.  GRAVITY is not a cold, detached movie.  I cannot stress enough how great Sandra Bullock is.  She does heavy, heavy lifting in her acting, and this is the best performance so far this year, man or woman.

GRAVITY is an absolute must-see.  If Cameron's AVATAR pushed other filmmakers, then Alfonso Cuarón has done something just as impressive, but GRAVITY is far from empty spectacle.  Emotional, beautiful, and deeply resonant, GRAVITY is one of the best science fiction films ever made, and is an evolutionary step forward in cinema.

Nordling, out.

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