Gravity and Runner Runner
Bullock and Clooney lost in space, Justin Timberlake drawing a bad hand.
Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity brings alive the wonder of outer space—its vast, silent majesty and terrifying indifference—in a new way. The movie was shot in 3D, but it's not a murky post-production conversion of the sort that more often than not annoys us nowadays. Here, the cosmic panorama is deep and clear and ominous, and Cuarón draws us so deeply into it that we effortlessly share the characters' desperation and despair as chaos erupts around them and their hopes of survival steadily dwindle.
Astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are in the sixth week of a mission to do a repair job on the Hubble Space Telescope. Kowalski is the mission commander, a veteran space jockey who's so at home among the stars that he can joke about the dangers of his job (while blasting country music and nipping from a bottle of vodka); Stone is a first-time voyager, a level-headed NASA technician who has signed on for career reasons.
The movie is only 90 minutes long, and it gets right down to business. It opens with a spectacular 15-minute scene in which we see Stone and Kowalski floating outside their shuttle, the Explorer, connected to it by ribbons of cable that wave like seagrass in the weightless atmosphere. Stone is doing the Hubble repair while Kowalski zips around nearby testing out a new jet pack, maintaining a stream of jokey banter over their audio connection in an effort to keep things light. Then we hear a radio communication from NASA control back in Houston, an urgent announcement that the Explorer's mission is being aborted—a deadly storm of space debris is hurtling toward the ship. But the warning comes too late, and when the storm hits—it's a fearsome hurricane of junked machinery—Stone and Kowalski are battered around like helpless figurines, clinging desperately to their lifelines. The Explorer is trashed beyond repair. Then we see that Stone has become untethered from the ship, and is slowly drifting away into the void. This image, of a human being receding forlornly into the stark black nothingness of space, has a visceral horror that claws at our imagination.
This is just the beginning of the film. The story, written by the director and his son, Jonás Cuarón, is a powerful tension-generator, poetic in a way that's not overbearing (a theme of salvation and rebirth runs throughout the movie) and raising up a succession of new thrills at every alarming turn. The feeling of you-are-there realism is exceptional. In an interview with Wired.com, Cuarón said he spent four and a half years conceiving the film—designing the extensive digital animation and then layering in the actors with micro-painstaking care. Working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot Cuarón's last movie, the 2006 Children of Men), he devised a limber camera style that carries us over and around and into the film's complex environments; and to emphasize the characters' isolation, he backgrounds many shots with the great blue orb of Earth, some 370 miles away (not really "below"—the movie scuttles our customary notions of up and down very early on).
The picture's 3D design is also unusually elegant: the opening catastrophe is of course an awesome into-your-face onslaught, but many other extra-dimensional touches—like a dropped screw floating gently out from the screen—are sweetly subtle.
Clooney brings his familiar warm charm to the proceedings, and in this cold and increasingly hopeless setting it's greatly appreciated. But the movie is really all about Sandra Bullock's performance, which skillfully blends technocratic determination with barely suppressed horror—she's never been better than she is in this movie. Kowalski tells Stone that their only chance is to somehow (but how?) make it to the International Space Station, which is not exactly nearby; failing that, there's also a Chinese station, but that's a hundred miles away. A sense of encircling doom grows stronger with each disastrous setback. Things look very bad, and then much worse. The movie is an impressive feat of storytelling, and a dazzling breakthrough for a director more gifted than even his many admirers may have suspected.
Runner Runner could have been a small-classic caper movie. It has a cast (Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Anthony Mackie) that looks solid on paper, and its tropical setting and flourishes of Bondian villainy (there's a pool full of hungry crocodiles) promise colorful popcorn adventure. Unfortunately, the movie lacks snap—it lumbers at times—and the actors don't quite jell. There's also a too-cute ending that's brazenly implausible.
Timberlake is Richie Furst, a gambler's son who's financing a Princeton master's degree by running an online gambling site for fellow students. When the dean shuts down this lucrative operation, Richie, desperate for tuition money, decides to wager all of his savings—$17,000—in an Internet poker game. This should be a breeze—Richie's a Texas Hold 'Em hotshot—but he loses everything. He realizes he's been cheated, and decides to take the evidence directly to Ivan Block (Affleck), the online-gambling mogul who runs the site on which Richie was swindled.
Block is headquartered in Costa Rica, which is portrayed here as a festering pit of political corruption (possibly why the movie was actually shot in Puerto Rico). Richie arrives just in time for Block's annual party for his world-wide affiliates, a predictably gaudy bacchanal heavy with top-shelf booze and luscious bikini babes. Richie confronts Block, who seems at first like a nice guy. He agrees to refund Richie's money and also dangles a job offer—come to work for him and start pulling down a $7-million annual salary. Richie takes the bait.
Block isn't a nice guy, of course—he's a vicious hood. And his situation in Costa Rica is becoming tenuous: the powers that be—those that aren't on his payroll—have decided that his skeezy doings are giving their country a bad name (although surely no worse than this movie does). So with the help of his brainy/beautiful girlfriend, Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), he has devised an escape plan. To pull it off he needs a fall guy to do a few decades in a Stateside prison for him. Guess who that is.
Richie soon finds himself caught between Block's thugs and an FBI agent named Shavers (Mackie, giving the movie's liveliest performance). Shavers wants Richie to become his informant inside Block's organization. This turns out to involve much heavy menacing, considerable gunplay and one bloody beat-down. Having secretly scored with Rebecca, he recruits her to help out with an escape scheme of his own.
Unfortunately, Arterton's Rebecca is a thoroughly inscrutable character. Her is-she-or-isn't-she maneuverings are meant to be tantalizing, but she doesn't read as a person and her ambiguity becomes an annoyance. Affleck is miscast—he's too personable an actor to be convincing as an amoral scumbag, especially when the crocodiles gather to make acquaintance with a stooge who's fallen into disfavor. And Timberlake's natural charisma is wasted on a monochromatic character that could have used a few colorful quirks (perhaps of the shaken-not-stirred variety). The script, by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who also wrote the fine Michael Douglas film Solitary Man), provides a serviceable armature for a tight little double-cross flick, but director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) has failed to punch it up or smooth it out. And the financial machinations at the heart of the story never seem especially likely. By the end of the movie, you might feel swindled yourself.