Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
"Gravity" is a spellbinding space thriller and one of the most dazzling achievements in visual effects I've seen at the movies. It follows a long tradition of stories about isolation and survival, where characters are challenged by seemingly insurmountable odds that test their inner resolve. Overlooked amid the praise for its groundbreaking technical virtuosity is the revelation that a woman, at long last, occupies the role of "Everyman" in a major Hollywood blockbuster.
The immediate pleasure of experiencing this film is to drink in one glorious image after another as we float some 370 miles above Earth's surface. Here is a movie where our planet occupies some part of the screen in almost every frame of the story's economical 91-minute runtime.
There is no sound in space, and a good deal of the dialogue between our astronauts is heard as commentary, allowing us to regard our home in a way we haven't before, since most movies show Earth for about as long as it takes for a ship to rocket away from her or to make a return landing.
The film's long opening tracking shot joins an exclusive list of legendary ones that include Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil", and is perhaps the most astonishing one next to Alexander Sokurov's "Russian Ark", which was an entire film shot in one take at the Hermitage. Director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men) appears to be having as much fun as we've seen from him, with a camera that's totally alive through the intricate construction of all these beautiful shots. On my second viewing of "Gravity", I had meant to clock the opening shot (appears to be closer to 20 minutes than 10, no?) but then it slipped my mind, lost in space as I was.
There is Earth in the top half of the frame, darkness below, and the faint sound of Hank Williams on the radio underneath George Clooney recounting the story of how he lost his wife to another man. At least I think that's where that story was headed except his character is the motormouthed Matt Kowalski, a jackass with a jetpack who so free-spiritedly segues and digresses that he never does arrive at the conclusion of that particular tale.
Kowalski's the head of the crew of the space shuttle Explorer, ironic since NASA only sends satellites and robots to explore deep space anymore while their astronauts have essentially become mechanics. He's a career astronaut on his final mission. His colleague, Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone, on the other hand, is that character we imagine ourselves to be: the lucky civilian who gets drafted into the program to take part in a mission. Bullock is treated to a magnificent reveal: as Kowalski floats back to Explorer, it is seen belly-up at first with the camera then swooping down and across to reveal the top of the shuttle open for business with Dr. Stone working on the Hubble Space Telescope.
Four countries are represented in space and the movie has fun observing the ways in which those countries are perceived: Americans with their cartoon characters, Russians with their vodka, and the Chinese with their ping-pong paddles and ever-growing space presence. The fourth country goes unmentioned, which I suppose is due to their inconspicuousness. By the end of that exhilarating first shot as the crew faces space debris hurtling towards them, the long structure with Bullock perched atop it allowing her to work on the Hubble--which breaks off and goes loop-dee-looping--is the Canadarm, the space contribution of America's neighbor to the north.
The physics within the film have generated a renewed interest in science by the mainstream public, as the conversation turns to inquiries into the laws of gravity, centrifugal force, and indeed the events that precipitate all the action when word comes to Kowalski from Houston (Ed Harris, in a nod to "Apollo 13" and "The Right Stuff") that Russia has blown up one of her satellites, causing the unintended consequence of taking out several others in a domino-type effect.
It is not an uncommon practice for countries to blow up their space toys real good. America and Russia were the first to do so, with China joining the group 6 years ago. Part of why they do this appears to be chest-thumping, but mostly they do it because it costs more money to transport old or dysfunctional satellites way out to the "Graveyard Orbit", some 22,000 miles away. And that domino effect actually has a name in real life: the Kessler Syndrome, that warns of what lies ahead if we continue to pollute our orbit with space debris. Would debris really come back to whip this crew about every 90 minutes, as depicted in the film? Indeed it would, since the debris from that Chinese satellite a few years ago was studied for weeks afterwards, spinning around our marbled bowling ball.
I'll let eggheads and bean counters to sort out and correct all the other fun details, like the way "Gravity" houses much of the international community's toys within sight of each other. What I know for sure though is that if I were under oath, I'd have to attest that indeed you can use a fire extinguisher to get you where you need to go in space. I know it must be true because I saw it in this movie with my very own wide eyes.
On one level, "Gravity" is the greatest spectacle of the year. But what sneaks up on us by the end, beneath its structure as a pure thriller, is a narrative that plays like a parable about life itself. There is no conventional villain in this movie, just an existential one: cruel indifference, both in the way life moves on with or without us and in the approach we may take when confronted with grave challenges.
Sandra Bullock is just the right choice for Dr. Stone, who is not meant to be played as an action figure, but an intelligent and resourceful civilian with only basic astronaut training. Women can be action heroes in the movies now, and they can be interesting villains, too, but they never get to be Everyman: a character thrust into the position of accidental hero and whose hopes and fears and dreads become our own. "Gravity" passes the baton to Bullock in another of its awe-inspiring cirque-du-space sequences showing her entangled in a parachute attached to the International Space Station while trying to save her colleague's life. Bullock's natural gift for exuding a kind of instant humanity onscreen is what elevates this movie to greatness. She did the same for "Speed", making it a far more interesting actioner than it needed to be.
Is "Gravity" better than "2001: A Space Odyssey"? That conversation has lit up online forums. My view is that "Gravity" is to "2001" what "Rocky" is to "Raging Bull", what "Silver Linings Playbook" is to "Ordinary People". One set of films are great general audience pictures and excellent entertainments while the other set are great achievements that challenge mainstream boundaries and that I think aim more towards mature audiences than younger ones. This movie's nod to "2001" in one particular shot is unmistakable and it works.
"Gravity" is one of the year's best and most exciting movies. It now joins "Hugo" and "Life of Pi" among the best 3D movies in recent memory and is must-see on the largest screen possible.