A paradox of watching special-effects films in the all-fantasy-all-the-time CGI era is that you can go to the movies every week, especially in the summer, and experience things that really ought to seem magical – a man of steel zipping through the air, an endless zombie army shimmying over a wall, cracks opening in the earth as the world ends – and as entertaining as much of this stuff is, none of it, at heart, leaves you truly, deeply amazed, because eye-popping visual miracles have become so routine that they’re simply the new normal. (How far we’ve evolved from the days of “You’ll believe a man can fly!”) But when you watch Gravity, a tale of floating astronauts starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, set in what used to be called outer space (and now might be called 600 kilometers over the earth), you may find yourself thinking, over and over again, “How the heck did they do that?” It’s not because you’re seeing anything that’s all that outrageously fanciful. Gravity, though it’s set in space, isn’t really science fiction. It’s a drama built around the technology of space travel as it more or less exists today. What’s astonishing about the film is its hypnotic seamlessness – the way that the director, Alfonso Cuarón, using special effects (and 3D) with a nearly poetic simplicity and command, places us right up there in space along with the people on screen.
Gravity opens with an extended shot of the earth, looking gorgeously luminescent and real against the vast black nothingness, and we hear radio burbles of talk between the astronauts and Houston. Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, a spacecraft enters our view from the right side of the screen – it’s a shuttle, and the astronauts, as we gradually come to realize, are walking in space outside of it, trying to repair a problem on the ship. You’ll almost surely be reminded of 2001: A Space Odyssey, because what Cuarón echoes from Kubrick’s great film – and what still seems haunting and novel in an outer-space movie – is the creeping rhythm of space, the anti-gravity that places everything in a trance, turning the “action” into a kind of moment-to-moment semi-slow motion, a feeling of life suspended.
As the camera drifts, every bit as slowly as the astronauts, gliding and dancing around them as they grab onto the ship to position themselves, the effect of the sequence – and, indeed, of the entire movie – is to make us feel like we’re watching a single unbroken shot. At any given moment, we may think we know how Caurón brought this off (he used CGI images, he shot the actors in a studio, and so forth), but what’s thrilling about Gravity is the hallucinatory, you are there sensation of free-floating cosmic rootlessness that the movie creates over time. That’s true even as we’re immersed in the quirky banality of the repair work, or as we listen in on the jaunty “office” banter between Matt Kowalsky (Clooney), a veteran astronaut who’s been walking in space so long that he’s starting to feel like he belongs there, and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a medical engineer who’s still a relative newbie in space (she’s struggling to keep her lunch down). But then there’s a bulletin from Houston: Due to an exploding Soviet satellite, a bunch of debris is about to come flying at them, and so they have to get inside the ship and abort the mission. It’s too late, though: The debris shower hits them, full force (the 3D places us right in the hurtling metal thick of it), tearing apart the ship. Seconds later, there is no ship. They are lost in space.
Gravity is a tale of survival, and its suspense emerges from an implicit pact that Cuarón, through the amazing verisimilitude of his staging, makes with the audience. The movie is basically telling us that it won’t cheat, that the way the characters are going to get out of this, if they do, will be something that we can believe. The ebb and flow of Gravity’s story is deeply organic – it seems to be making itself up as it goes along, and that’s how it hooks us. Yet because Gravity, unlike the majority of science fiction, doesn’t hit us over the head with incidents, what sustains our absorption in the movie is a rather tricky synthesis between our basic involvement in the plight of the characters and our head-scratching wonder at the awesome technological matter-of-factness with which the film brings the realities of space – the floating scariness of it, the mysterious cluttered interiors of foreign satellites – to life. The two actors are sensational: Clooney, looking amusingly like Buzz Lightyear, with a haunting chivalry beneath his bluster, and Bullock, as desperate and resourceful and anxious and brave, and as primed to live, as Sigourney Weaver in the last half of Alien. By the end of this year, more than one commentator will surely have noted that Gravity creates an eerie bookend with All Is Lost, the upcoming Robert Redford man-adrift-at-sea drama that is also, in a very different way, a marvel of organic filmmaking. What these movies are telling us, perhaps, is that we all feel a little adrift these days, and that we want nothing so much as to get back home.
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Four years ago, the best movie I saw in Toronto – the best movie I saw all year – was Up in the Air, Jason Reitman’s sharply funny and melancholy screwball romantic comedy that was also a gut-punching snapshot of the downsizing era that was also a study of the charisma of George Clooney, an actor so magnetically centered that his very presence raised the question: Did he really need someone else to complete him? (The answer was yes, but a hard-won yes.) Up in the Air did so many things at once, and did all of them so well, that it convinced me that Reitman had the talent to be a new-style old-fashioned mainstream Hollywood master – a Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder for the post-ironic age. I’ve been waiting, ever since, for him to make good on that promise. But it’s starting to look like I may have to wait a long time.
Two years ago, Reitman delivered his follow-up film, Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron as a divorced author of YA fiction who had never gotten over her old boyfriend (Patrick Wilson), so she went back to her hometown and stalked him, even though he was married, with a kid, and had no real interest in her. The movie was witty and sincere, yet it was also trivial – the story of a basket case who persists in embarrassing herself, which is fine (a little honest bad behavior can be just what movies need), except that she didn’t really learn anything, so the film seemed to circle around itself until it just sort of gave in and ended. Coming after Up in the Air, Young Adult was no post-big-hit slump, but I thought of it as Reitman’s highly watchable post-big-hit trifle.
Now, after two more years, Reitman has returned to Toronto with Labor Day, adapted from a 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard, and it’s the sweetest, damnedest, soggiest thing: Reitman’s lushly crafted version of a Lifetime movie, set in 1987 in a lovingly photographed leafy New England small town, with Kate Winslet as a depressed single mother whose life with her son (Gattlin Griffith) is interrupted – or, more accurately, completed – when the two are taken hostage in their clapboard home by an escaped prisoner, played by Josh Brolin as a scowling macho in a Stanley Kowalski T-shirt, but with a heart of TV-movie gold. How do we know how nice a guy he is? He never does anything that’s even slightly unstable or off. The scene that seals the deal, though, is when he shows Kate and her son how to make a peach pie. His recipe and technique for the dough is a homespun dream, and when he and Kate fuse their fingers on the sweet slimy peaches, the movie lingers on this overly telegraphed moment of “erotic” baking as if it were the potter’s-wheel orgasm of Ghost as staged by Martha Stewart.
Shot for gauzy shot, scene for sentimental scene, Labor Day feels like the exact movie Jason Reitman wanted to make, which raises the question: Why, exactly, did he want to make it? He’s an extraordinarily deft and sensitive filmmaker, yet his gift for staging now so outstrips his instinct for choosing material that I’m tempted to say that he needs a new agent, or a new screenwriter (i.e., someone other than himself), or a new something that will shake him up. The period detail is as fussed over as anything on Mad Men: Inside a grocery store, every last item, from the cans of Fanta on the shelf to the cards on a bulletin board, looks like it came from the dowdy ’80s. When we finally learn why the Winslet character is so depressed, it’s affecting, and I can appreciate that Reitman wants to tell stories that reach out and touch the women in the audience. But must he do so by turning a character like Brolin’s convict into such a noble, scowling angel-man? I’m all for sincerity in filmmaking, but the quality that has defined Reitman’s best movies – Up in the Air, Juno, and Thank You For Smoking – is audacity, and he really needs to get that back.