October 10, 2013

GRAVITY Is The Closest I'll Ever Get To Actually Going Into Space

 "You should see the sun on the Ganges.  It's amazing."
You guys, I'm pretty sure that Alfonso Cuaron actually shot this movie in outer space.

I know that I've been sticking primarily to horror for the month of October, but Gravity is a film I've been looking forward to for months now and there was simply no way that I was gonna wait three more weeks to see it.  Besides, this is easily the most terrifying film I've watched all year.  And while I'll probably hold the other non-horror articles until November, Gravity is so damn good that I want to implore you to see it early and often, preferably on the biggest screen possible, a battle plan that actually turned into quite an ordeal for us.

So let's have a brief chat about IMAX.  I love it.  Hollywood has been pimping the virtues of 3D as a way to keep people coming to the theater, but for my money, I find IMAX to be a far more compelling draw.  (Christopher Nolan agrees.)  I can buy a 3D TV and chances are that it'll probably look brighter and sharper than most theaters that are cutting corners in order to save projector lamp hours.  But there's just no replicating the awesome scale and majesty of a ginormous IMAX screen.  Sadly, in the last handful of years, the IMAX brand has been tragically diluted.  The company now sells to theaters what they call IMAX Digital, (and what the rest of us call LieMAX) offering brighter, sharper picture and better digital sound, but using the theaters existing standard screens.  Just to give you a sense of scale:


So...just a bit of difference.

What this all means is that AMC or Regal can officially say they have an IMAX theater and, more importantly, charge you IMAX prices for an experience that, while technically superior, is probably indistinguishable from a typical projection to your average moviegoer, particularly in the age of 4K projection.  Moreover, true IMAX theaters have become few and far between.  There are only three bona fide IMAX screens in the entire greater Boston area.  One is at the New England Aquarium and they almost never show Hollywood releases.  The other two belong to a furniture store.

Yeah.  It's weird.

Jordan's Furniture is a local chain of upscale furniture stores with working class appeal, personified by the company's bespectacled, platinum ponytailed president/spokesman Elliot.  (It used to be Barry & Elliot, but brother Barry stopped doing commercials years ago.)  When I was a kid, they opened an attraction at their Avon location called M.O.M., or Motion Odyssey Movie ride.  Think of it kind of like the Star Wars ride at Disneyland.  You're harnessed into a rollercoaster-type chair in front of a large projection screen and then the seats move around simulating the motion of the first person video in front of you.  It's moderately entertaining, no different from countless similar theme park attractions.  But it opened the door for Jordan's to expand their Reading (pronounced "red-ing") and Natick locations to include IMAX screens.  (It's worth noting that neither Reading nor Natick are even remotely "downtown," and each venue really requires an automobile to get there.  That means that all those college students in Boston are shit out of luck.)

Reading is far more easily accessible from our apartment.  Going to Natick involves travelling across town and into the suburbs, whereas going to Reading is a quick 20 minute jaunt straight up the highway.  And here's the dirty little secret about Jordan's: it's one of the best theaters in town.  The venue is kept in flawless condition and the staff are all extremely friendly and upbeat.  (More on this in a minute.)  The seats are all made of super comfortable tempurpedic material (because furniture store) and each seat has its own individual subwoofer called a "butt-kicker," which sounds hilarious in Elliot's thick Boston accent.  So when shit goes down on screen, your big comfy seat will straight up rumble.  But the best part?  Because they make all their money selling high priced furniture, the movie theater is basically an afterthought.  They see it more as a way to get people in the door than a way to really make money, so your standard ticket costs a grand total of $11.50, which is not only cheaper than LieMAX, but it's cheaper than most regular theaters.  And it's such a better experience that it's not even worth comparing.

Anyway...

Jamie and I drove up to Reading on Saturday night and got there about 15 minutes before the movie started.  Fortunately I had pre-ordered my tickets weeks before because not only was our 7:00 screening sold out, but so was the 9:15 show that followed.  We made our way into the theater and found it absolutely packed.  The only seats available were in the second row from the front, which is obviously far from ideal.  The pre-show commercials started and we quickly found ourselves staring into Elliot's giant crotch, with his face seemingly a mile overhead.  Just as I started to imagine the insane vertigo I'd be experiencing for the next 90 minutes, suddenly the screen went dark and the fire alarm started flashing.  We were all quickly evacuated out to the parking lot where we waited along with the furniture shoppers for the fire department to arrive and declare the building safe once more.  The crowd tried to stay close to the door, wary of the imminent chaos of re-entry; some folks were afraid of losing their prime seats while others (i.e. us) were hoping that we might be able to somehow score an upgrade.  An elaborate dance ensued, where one person would edge towards the doors and the rest of the crowd, sensing blood in the water, would all start to shuffle forward until the theater staff suddenly saw the approach herd and waved us all off.  This happened at least four times.

After about 30 minutes the fire department was on site and told us we could go back inside, at which point the staff told us to go back to our original seats.  All things considered, it was actually a pretty orderly proceeding, with most people living up to the honor system and retaking their previous spots.  Predictably it was the seats in the very center of the theater that experienced the only drama, but it was all worked out with minimal fuss.  We then sat around for about the next 20 minutes while the fire department struggled to reset the fire alarm system and deactivate the flashing lights.  We in the front were close enough to the walkway to overhear everything being said over the walkie-talkie of the good-natured usher standing in front of us, including the moment when a staff member suggested the possibility that they might have to cancel the screening outright.  Fortunately the usher responded to the brief outcry of panic by shouting out the score of the Red Sox playoff game, and luckily for him the Sox were winning.  Kudos to all the staff that night for responding to the situation with aplomb, staying upbeat and keeping everyone in good spirits until the show was ready to start.  Eventually they announced that people who couldn't or didn't want to wait out the delay were welcome to leave and get a refund or a voucher for another showtime, and luckily for us a handful of people actually jumped at the offer, thus freeing up better seats up at the top of the theater that I quickly claimed before the show started at almost exactly eight o'clock.

Thank god for that fire alarm, because after seeing Gravity, I can't imagine having watched it from our initial seats.  As I said at the top, Cuaron has pulled off nothing short of movie magic here and somehow managed to perfectly replicate the experience of actually being in space.  My friend Jared likened it to Jurassic Park in that he often forgot that what he was looking at wasn't actually real and I think that's a very apt comparison.  The line between reality and illusion is often indistinguishable - most of the time even the spacesuits are artificially rendered, which means that the only real world objects on screen are Clooney and Bullock's heads.  Any middle school science teacher can tell you that there's no sound in space because there's no air for sound waves to travel through.  However, sound vibrations do travel through objects, and when an astronaut makes contact with such an object, like a drill gun or an opening hatch, the vibrations travel though their suit, up their arm and into their ears.  Cuaron and his savvy sound team therefore used special transducer mics to pick up these muffled sounds and recreate the way an actual astronaut might hear them.  It's the kind of almost imperceptible detail that makes all the difference in the world.  The way that the camera moves through space and the approach angles that objects follow on screen actually utilize the 3D in such a way as to perfectly synthesize the sensation of orbital motion.  The beautifully rendered face of planet Earth, looming large behind the astronauts, becomes as a constant reference point to create depth of frame, particularly in those shots where you can see the curve of the planetary horizon.  And when the Earth disappears from frame, it only serves to illustrate the vastness of space, full of starfields that are nothing short of breathtaking.  More than anything else, Cuaron is able to reproduce the peculiar double standard of space, namely that it is both empty and claustrophobic at the same time.  This is the promise of 3D finally realized.

Cuaron's direction redefines groundbreaking.  I'd like to think I know a thing or two about making movies, but I have never sat in a theater and spent 90 straight minutes thinking, "How the hell did he do that?"  (I've seen a handful of filmmakers echoing that sentiment on Twitter.)  Cuaron uses a lot of very long takes, which is a maneuver I always appreciate.  I suspect some may have been artificially generated; the opening shot is about 14 minutes long, but I assume there must be some invisible edits in there.  Even still, the entire experience is very fluid, with the camera going from stationary to synchronized motion and back again with surprising ease.  It feels as if there's only about 50 cuts in the whole movie and yet each image or camera move relays so much information that it makes the economy of shots all the more impressive.  Cuaron frequently utilizes the reflections in the astronauts' visors to show exactly what they're looking it, be it the surface of the planet or an approaching space station.  But then he takes it up a notch, using a lot of first person POV so the audience really feels as if they're hurtling through space and crashing into the ISS, or dodging the lethal debris cloud of a Russian satellite.  However, rather than simply cut back and forth, the camera will actually drift through the glass of Sandra Bullock's helmet, give us an extreme close up of her panicked face and then swing around to show her HUD and all that lies out in the frigid vacuum beyond.  It actually gives the audience the sensation of inhabiting the character of Dr. Ryan Stone, as opposed to feeling like we're cutting away to video game footage.

It would be one thing if Gravity did nothing more than perfectly recreate the feeling of being in orbit, but to top it all off it's also just a great movie.  At a mere 88 minutes, the story is extremely simple: a pair of spacewalking astronauts lose contact with Houston following the destruction of their space shuttle and have to find a way to make it safely back to Earth.  I'm honestly a little baffled to hear people complaining that the story is somehow slight.  Have we really grown so use to these long, often bloated 2+ hour epics that there's no room for a stripped down story that's tight and measured?  Simply put, the plot has everything that it needs and nothing that it doesn't and that's a pretty remarkable thing in and of itself.  A lesser script would rely on flashbacks to flesh out Dr. Stone's backstory, or would frequently cut back Apollo 13-style to the folks in Houston* struggling to put together some kind of rescue mission.  I'm sure a lot of people would have loved to see that stuff, but that's simply not the type of story Cuaron is telling.  The film is largely told in real time, which adds to the sense of immediacy and the feeling that we're right there in the thick of things.  Cutting away from the action in any way would have completely broken that spell, and in Gravity it's the immersive experience that comes first.

It also helps that the whole thing hinges on George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, two preposterously talented actors with broad appeal who are each playing at the top of their games.  Clooney is the ideal seasoned astronaut, charming and capable and full of great stories; you get the sense that if astronauts were more like his Matt Kowalski then perhaps our space program wouldn't be a shambles today.  This is unquestionably my favorite Bullock performance since Demolition Man.  (Yeah, I said it.)  Dr. Stone is the mission specialist who's never been off world and struggles not only to survive, but to come to grips with a reason for survival in the wake of a personal tragedy.  Space is the opposite of Earth in that way - you have to fight for life and it's a lot easier to simply let go and drift away.  Dr. Stone certainly isn't suicidal, but she's also not entirely sure if there's anything on Earth that's truly worth fighting for.  When faced with such a clusterfuck of a situation, Stone's grapple with her inner demons as well as her own mortality is fascinating to watch.  That's wholly due to Bullock, who's able to convey both psychological fragility and steely resolve in equal measure.  She is the heart of the film; Cuaron stimulates the audience both viscerally and intellectually  and Clooney makes us laugh, but Bullock engages the audience on an almost spiritual level, ensuring that we're fully invested in plight of these astronauts all the way to that last beautiful shot.

Gravity is an absolute masterpiece, a quantum leap forward in the very language of film that's anchored by a smart, emotional story and two flawless lead performances.  If I could, I'd watch this movie a dozen more times in IMAX 3D, because I honestly don't know when I'll have such a transformative movie watching experience in a theater again.  For someone who's always dreamed of spaceflight, it's hard to admit that I'll almost certainly never get the chance to leave the planet.

But least I'll always have Gravity.




*The voice of mission control in Houston is none other than Ed Harris, which is an inspired bit of casting.  Can we just make a rule that he must play that role in all movies from now on?

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Title: Gravity
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - IMAX 3D, Jordan's Reading