Fantastic Fest Review: Gravity

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Gravity"State of the art" is described on Wikipedia as "the highest level of development of a device, technique, or scientific field, achieved at a particular time." Ever so rarely, a film appears that advances the state of the art in filmmaking to the next level, becoming a benchmark by which other films are judged.

Recently (at least since the late 80s) this has been James Cameron's playground, as a string of blockbusters like The Abyss, Terminator 2, Titanic and Avatar all set new standards for the use of computer graphics in filmmaking. Of course, Steven Spielberg also joined him in the sandbox with Jurassic Park.

Now Alfonso Cuaron's heavily-anticipated Gravity sets a bar so high one could say without irony that it's in orbit. After more than two decades of computer-generated wonders in film, it is difficult to impress an audience that is already quite used to seeing every wonder a director can imagine. Computer-powered dinosaurs, spaceships, cars and robots make a trip to the cinema feel like stepping into The Matrix, but one thing that anyone with a lot of experience with video games can tell you is the processing power required increases exponentially as you add more objects to a scene. CG can do one object brilliantly. Various tricks allow Peter Jackson to create an army controlled by swarming algorithms or the zombies of World War Z to flow like water.

But there are shots in Gravity that prompt one to exclaim "God Himself made this film!" Thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of objects crash into each other, ricochet, and break apart -- all while looking so detailed, so perfect, and each independently travelling along its own path.

Putting aside the visuals for a moment, Gravity stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as a pair of astronauts scrambling for safety in the wake of a disastrous accident. It bears resemblance in mood and tone to predecessors such as Silent Running, Moon, and the likewise groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like them, Gravity is a rare hardcore science fiction story where physics rules, scientific ideas are explored, and the story develops by taking them to their logical outcomes.

Cuaron takes the audience on a carnival ride through an unwinnable sequence of disasters and makes us feel like we are sitting right between Clooney and Bullock. Clooney, for his part, does an admirable job performing in a spacesuit helmet, which leaves him little to work with other than his voice. Bullock is the only true star of this film, and her performance is fittingly stellar. The damsel in distress role is nothing new for her, but this part requires more self-reliant heroism. The characterization is stronger for it, and the audience responds well. (It's interesting to note that two of this summer's films with the strongest female characters, Gravity and Man of Steel, both fail the Bechdel test.)

If Avatar was a reason to buy a 3D TV for home, Gravity will definitely be a driver for new 4K 'Ultra HD' systems. It begs to be seen in IMAX. Glorious visuals are backed up by superb actors, a moving score, and most of all a compelling story.