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Gravity (2013)

gravity

I generally try to not over-hype films in my head before seeing them for fear of my expectations not being met. That being said, Gravity is a film that was hard to not over-hype…from the very earliest of screenings, critics have been raving about how it’s “the space film they always wanted” or “the best space movie ever,” etc. Despite the fact that I generally try to avoid critic reviews before seeing films so as not to color my own opinion one way or the other, I couldn’t help but see how much people were liking this movie, so the bar was high. And, my goodness, even that bar was far too low for a film like this.

Gravity begins calmly enough; Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is experimenting with a prototype jetpack during his final expedition before retiring, and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is making repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope on her first space shuttle mission. However, disaster soon strikes when speeding space debris appears, damaging the space shuttle and causing the astronauts to lose communication with Mission Control, rendering the pair completely alone. Tension is high as they navigate across space, fighting for survival against impossible odds.

The only two actors appearing in the film (aside from voices) are Clooney and Bullock, who are both fantastic. Clooney’s character carries the same sort of assured confidence that is always attributed to him, but it doesn’t feel canned or overly familiar; in fact, it’s a comfort in the film, as his character is the voice of reason and determination in a desperate situation. Bullock’s performance is what truly carries the film, though, with her inspiring growth from damsel in distress to her struggle in finding hope to her resolve to survive. It’s an intimate role in that it is often literally her, space, and the audience alone together, so we spend a lot of time in her head seeing what she sees and feeling what she feels.

Speaking of seeing what she sees, the cinematography is often used as a tool to change audience perspective. In one scene, the camera shifts from us looking at Dr. Stone in empty space, alone, with us watching her panic as she spins out of control, to inside her helmet, watching the world and the destruction of the space shuttle come in and out of focus as we spin with her. This perspective shift makes an intimate performance even more intimate because we literally experience the same thing that she does. The camera work is also incredibly beautiful; as Kowalski and Stone venture across space together, we are treated to wide open shots that show their relative insignificance when contrasted with the enormity of Earth and the space that engulfs it. Our perspective is shifted again as we see shots of the two of them against the backdrop of Earth during times of hopefulness, but we see them with nothing but black emptiness in the background when all hope seems to be lost. It’s an incredible technique that is as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. Despite the wide-openness of the setting, the great irony of the film is that you often feel claustrophobic; being confined alone to a suit in the middle of an oxygen-less emptiness is a scary feeling.

I purchased the film’s score, composed by Steven Price, a couple of weeks before the film was in theaters. From the very first track, I was stunned by how well the music is able to embody and facilitate the claustrophobia of the film. Much of the score is more atmospheric than musical, relying on random electronic beeps (as if from warning beeps from the astronauts’ equipment) and deafening “whirrs” to evoke feelings of disaster or extreme peril. Perhaps even more incredible are the moments in the film that don’t use music at all, perhaps bringing the claustrophobia to even greater heights. Obviously, there is no sound in space, so these moments are especially profound and, in a way, sobering. There are times of beauty, though, heard in the film’s rare instances of peace, such as in the track “Airlock,” that hint at the final track on the soundtrack, “Gravity,” which is heard in the final moments of the film. It’s a hugely satisfying moment that I don’t want to spoil for you here…just enjoy it when you see the film for yourself.

It has been quite a while since I’ve been as blown away by a film as I am by Gravity. It is one of those rare films that manages to both awe and inspire its audience in terms of story, characterization, and visuals, and it does so without ever becoming boring. I saw the movie in IMAX 3D, which I would highly recommend; the 3D is utilized well, actually engrossing you further into the film by making you a part of the action on-screen. Cuarón delivers on every level here…Gravity is a masterpiece.

Oscar season is upon us, my friends.

-Chad

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language

 

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Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

I’m not a Trekkie. I’ve only seen maybe three or four episodes of the original series – something I will hopefully amend in the near future – but I enjoyed J.J. Abram’s first venture into the Star Trek universe in the 2009 film quite a bit, so I was anxious to see the sequel, and I liked it. A lot.

Star Trek Into Darkness opens with a scene in which Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise, played by Chris Pine, breaks several Starfleet rules and then lies about it, leading to a lecture from Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) about how Kirk is careless, selfish, and over-confident. In the wake of his punishment, Starfleet is attacked by a mysterious man named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), leaving Kirk with no choice but to join his crew and track down this criminal. Along the way, Kirk struggles with making the right decisions and with protecting his crew from harm…and he can’t always do both.

The advantage that this film has over its predecessor is that it’s not an origin story, meaning that here we are dealing with the characters, their struggles, and their growth; the filmmakers didn’t have to establish their characters again because we as an audience are already familiar with them. That being said, Chris Pine does a fine job with communicating all of the conflict of his character to us, humanizing Kirk and showing that he is still a young man who can make mistakes – and makes plenty of them. Zachary Quinto as Spock also brings more to the table in this film; since Kirk and Spock are friends now, we see their relationship build and Spock make decisions based on that friendship rather than on logic. All of the familiar faces – Zoë Saldaña as Uhura, Karl Urban as Bones, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, Simon Pegg as Scotty, and John Cho as Sulu – do great jobs with their characters as well, with everyone building more on what was established in the first film. The newcomer, Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain John Harrison, brings all of the appropriate menace to the role, making him a formidable foe, and his acting chops are much, much better than Eric Bana’s were as Nero in the first film. I had seen Cumberbatch in Spielberg’s War Horse (my review) and in his BBC television series Sherlock (which is fantastic, by the way), but this was my first experience with him in a major film role, and it was definitely a positive one. His villain is very much multi-dimensional, and I even wondered at one point in the film if he was really the “bad guy” because of the incredible conviction that Cumberbatch plays him with.

The visual effects, as expected, are amazing, with the new worlds introduced to us ranging from bright and colorful to bleak and miserable, but all believable. While I’m normally indifferent to 3D, there was one moment while watching when it bothered me, which was in the very first scene when spears are being thrown in our faces…I think I actually tried to dodge one of them in my seat. However, the 3D is worth suffering through if you get the chance to see it in IMAX 3D – IMAX is always worth it, for any film. Seeing movies like this in IMAX, where everything is done on such a grand scale, only makes it even grander, which is wonderful. The music by Michael Giacchino, like his score to the first one (my review), and like any of his scores, is as expected – magnificent, intimate, and just awesome overall. But more on that later!

I must admit that, after walking out of the theater, I tried to figure out what the story was – how the villain became the villain, how this led to that, why this character did that, etc. I couldn’t tie the plot together…but I decided that I didn’t care. I walked out of that theater having had a blast, and that’s all that really matters to me in the long run…as long as there aren’t any huge problems with the movie elsewhere, and there weren’t. This movie, in my opinion at least, certainly improves upon its predecessor by giving us more – more character development, more destinations, more everything, and it’s entirely in a good way. I know there are lots of people out there who have concerns with J.J. Abrams directing the next Star Wars film, but, really, I think that if he can make such a fine science fiction space adventure film as Star Trek Into Darkness, it can’t turn out so bad. And with a cast that wants so badly to be better than they were in their previous film, succeeding in this attempt, I have high hopes for a Star Trek 3 in the future.

-Chad

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence