Alfonso Cuarón's space thriller Gravity opened this past weekend, and if you haven't seen it yet, you really should. Like, now. I'm serious. Step away from whatever electronic device you're using to read this and get in line at the cineplex - or, if the cineplex isn't currently open for business, drive over there and wait. Don't be one of those people who procrastinates until the movie hits home video and then whines about missing it on its initial release. Because I'm telling you: You're gonna want to catch Cuarón's latest on the big screen, and preferably on the biggest screen possible with your 3D glasses firmly in place. No kidding, folks: This thing is going to blow your mind.
I thought it best to open with that kind of breathless rave, partly because I mean it, but mostly because it might prove necessary, considering that it's going to be much easier for me to express what's wrong with the movie than what's right with it. Even though Gravity is, in so many respects, miraculous - thrilling and touching and at all times technically extraordinary - the film's weaknesses (and they're not minor ones) are pretty apparent, and not tough to verbalize. It's the movie's strengths that, even days after viewing Cuarón's achievement, I'm having trouble putting into words. How do you formulate thoughtful responses when you still can't wrap your head around what you've seen?
Narrative-wise, the most basic of setups is all you're gonna get from me, and given the plethora of wonderfully unsettling Gravity trailers unleashed over the past few months, even that may be more than you need. We open in outer space in, from all accounts, the present day, and soon land on two figures making exterior repairs to their spacecraft before making their way back to Earth. One of them, George Clooney's Matt Kowalski, is a veteran space traveler with an easygoing manner and authoritative confidence. The other, Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone, is a skilled engineer on her first mission. Yet after a few minutes of mostly lightweight banter and stunning vistas - with Kowalski encouraging Stone to relax and take in the God's-eye beauty of their surroundings - disaster strikes. A neighboring Russian satellite, as Houston's mission control informs them, has exploded, and is hurling debris on an exact trajectory toward Kowalski's and Stone's spacecraft, and there isn't time enough for a successful escape. The debris hits. The ship is in ruins. The tether connecting the astronauts to their vessel, and to one another, is severed, along with Kowalski's and Stone's contact with Houston. And there they are - alone, adrift, and, as far as rescue is concerned, in a potentially hopeless situation.
That gets you to about minute 15 of Gravity's beyond-speedy 90, and even if the film ended right there, it would be hard to imagine anyone demanding their money back. Movies, of course, have taken us to space time and time again. But no one before Cuarón, not even Kubrick, has so thoroughly presented us with the gut-level approximation of actually being there. Part of the reason it's so difficult to explain the movie's visual grandeur is because we have nothing, in terms of cinematic forebears, to compare it to. With the Earth, in cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's brilliantly fluid tracking shots, alternately viewed from above, below, and to all sides of our space travelers, you truly feel the sensation of a zero-gravity environment here; it's only the pressure of your feet on the cineplex floor that reminds you that you aren't, in fact, dangling mid-air, occasionally upside-down. And Cuarón and Lubezki even manage to pull you into the experience further, with seemingly impossible shots that (in what you'd swear were unbroken takes) lead you from outside Stone's spacesuit to her helmet's interior, allowing you a first-person account of events that's simultaneously nightmarish and exhilarating. Adding the movie's visual and sound effects (including the exquisite silence), which have to rank with the greatest I've ever encountered in a feature film, the technique on display in Gravity is utterly jaw-dropping. You could ask, "How did they do that?!" all throughout the film if you weren't too engrossed in the proceedings to remember the question, and if you weren't afraid of the film's magic being dispelled by someone actually telling you how they did that.
Yet while Gravity will, for many of its admirers, no doubt be the sort of space-themed religious experience that 2001: A Space Odyssey was for members of its generation - like a sci-fi blockbuster as imagined by Terrence Malick - I can't quite shake a few needling concerns. Take, for instance, the dialogue, written by co-screenwriters Cuarón and his son Jonás Cuarón. It's kind of awful. Okay, not awful so much as deathly over-explicit. I have no issue with the playful repartee between our leads early in the picture, or with the nattering of Bullock's Stone when she's stranded in space, as it's clear that the astronaut is talking to herself as a way of maintaining her sanity. But unfortunately, she's also given a tortured backstory involving a dead child that drips with forced pathos - leading composer Steven Price's otherwise topnotch score to also drip with forced pathos - and that comes back in analogy-laden form to haunt the movie's final scenes. Director Cuarón makes his points visually, but then he and Jonás keep underlining them with unnecessary prose that restates the obvious and dulls the overall effect. Plus, gorgeous though Lubezki's work continually is, Gravity's underlying theme of spiritual rebirth is presented with too heavy a hand. You can find yourself moved during the film's climactic moments (God knows I was) and still leave feeling unduly manipulated by the overtly iconic imagery, to say nothing of the verbalized sentiment and thunderous orchestral strains on the soundtrack.
And then there's the Clooney problem. On an intellectual level, I get the casting; Kowalski has to be the strong, masculine, charming, flippant presence that offsets Stone's anxiousness - the very definition of a "George Clooney type." But with Clooney himself in the role, making self-amused, theoretically endearing references to his own handsomeness and devil-may-care insouciance, Kowalski comes dangerously close to being a caricature of George Clooney. The actor is just fine in his role here, and you can hardly fault his line readings, which are delivered with just the right tone of measured, soothing calm. But Clooney is also so recognizably him - at least the "him" based on the man's well-cultivated public persona - that his presence almost can't help but pull you out of the movie more times than you want it to. (Although I enjoyed the in-joke, the buddy with whom I saw the movie was also bothered by the unseen voice of "Houston" once he recognized the familiar cadences of Apollo 13's Ed Harris.)
But enough griping. See Gravity. See it as soon as you can, and marvel in Cuarón's sublime direction and Bullock's achingly emotional performance and the sort of technical prowess and savvy that may, now, currently be without peer. The movie is flawed. That couldn't possibly matter less.
RUNNER RUNNER, GENERATION IRON, and METALLICA THROUGH THE NEVER
I also saw three other releases this past weekend, but even the enjoyable ones aren't worth a third of the print space Gravity deserves, so let's whip through 'em quickly.
Runner Runner finds Justin Timberlake playing an Ivy League grad student who loses a fortune in online poker, and who travels to Costa Rica to confront the Web site's magnate, an untrustworthy alpha bro played by Ben Affleck. It's the sort of blithe and unremarkable dramatic (sans drama) thriller (sans thrills) that may have made for passable entertainment in, say, 1988, and that would've been a lot more fun for everyone, because Timberlake would only have been seven years old at the time, which would've helped explain why his character was so irredeemably clueless. Director Brad Furman's film is a boring, visually ugly, tension- and excitement-free waste of time, and also of the talents of everyone involved - although considering the half-asleep lethargy with which Runner Runner's stars perform here, talent, I'm sorry to say, isn't much on display. I did, though, smile at Anthony Mackie when he delivered the script's one good line, which landed after the actor's corrupt FBI agent got rough with a clearly deserving Timberlake. "I enjoy fuckin' up Princeton guys," Mackie hissed, "'cause I went to Rutgers."
A follow-up, of sorts, to 1977's seminal bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron - which introduced many in the world to the ambulatory slab of granite known as Arnold Schwarzenegger - director Vlad Yudin's new Generation Iron follows a half-dozen or so competitors on the road to the 2012 Mr. Olympia competition. As a "Who's gonna win?" doc along the lines of (to use some really nerdy examples) the kids'-spelling-bee saga Spellbound or the pro-bowling exposé A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the movie is kind of wanting. We know pretty much from the outset that the competition's winner is either going to be reigning champ Phil Heath - he of the incredibly sweet, fast grin and the crazy eyes - or hungry tyro Kai Greene, so the time spent with others feels too much like marking time. Yet while the film feels unduly padded and Mickey Rourke's narration keeps reiterating what we're already visually aware of, it's still a strong and engaging piece of work, and filled with fascinating informational tidbits about professional bodybuilding. Did you know about the pressing need to lose water weight right before a competition? Or about the necessity of spray-tanning, even for African-American contestants? Or about the internal-health benefits of posing? That last one was certainly news to me. I'm thinking of ditching my gym membership and instead just making funny shapes in my living room on a daily basis.
And with the opportunity to catch only one of the weekend's two area debuts of a musical nature - the inspirational drama Grace Unplugged or the concert film Metallica Through the Never - I opted for the latter choice. Time will tell if it was the right one, but after 90 minutes of James Hetfield's wailing vocals and Lars Ulrich's killer percussion skills and director Nimród Antal's whirling-dervish camerawork, you'll hear no complaints from me. Well, maybe a few; the songs do tend to get interrupted, frequently, by a strange side narrative involving Dane DeHaan as a roadie running some kind of MacGuffin-fueled fool's errand through a city of blinded horses and screaming Warriors wannabes. But the band's musicians - with Hetfield, in particular, looking to be in excellent shape - perform with fiery charisma and invigorating playfulness, and the end-of-times finale to their stage concert looks like it was truly an experience for the ages. Given the option, I'd still rather take my Metallica with a healthy helping of Some Kind of Monster introspection. Yet Through the Never is still quite a bit of shit-kicking fun, and I'm still more than glad that I wound up at Antal's film over Grace Unplugged. So my path to Hell clearly continues.