Usually, the foundation of a good movie is a good screenplay, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the script for “Gravity” came out to about 30 mediocre pages. This is not a film that ever properly resided inside the cerebral mind of a writer hammering out witty banter at his boringly terrestrial desk; while there is some dialogue, it’s hardly the sort that will be remembered five minutes after the film ends.
What will be remembered years after the proverbial dust settles on this experiential nightmare is just about everything else: the intoxicating cinematography; the intensity of the direction; the fluid, virtually invisible nature of the editing, the panic suffusing Sandra Bullock’s entire being; the jittery restlessness even when things seem to be going OK for the two characters we see onscreen.
That time is limited to the first 15 minutes or so of the film, which begins in deep space and never really leaves the infinite void. Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission, is joined by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). They float around space on a routine trip to install a system in a space telescope, an assignment that is going swimmingly until satellite debris crashes into their shuttle, and off we go: The rest of the picture is unrelenting, full-throttle panic, an impossible survival story in the most unforgiving expanse known to man. It’s a bit like watching some miserable squirrel clutch a tree branch during a Category 5 hurricane, or like Pi in “Life in Pi” if the tiger was perpetually lunging at his throat. If you’re not on the edge of your seat the entire time, you’re not paying attention.
The genius of director Alfonso Cuaron, in his first movie since 2006’s celebrated “Children of Men,” is his elimination of the distance between the film’s inhabitants and its spectators. As an audience, we’re never moored. Cuaron never lets us grow comfortable and detached from the insterstellar horror – and make no mistake, this is a horror film, in the most terrifying definition of the term. He doesn’t even give us the mental break of an edit unless he absolutely has to; the first shot must have gone on for something like 20 minutes without a cut, and you’ll be too mesmerized and shell-shocked to blink.
For the weak-kneed among us, it’s a difficult experience made ever more real with the most marvelously immersive 3D photography in recent memory. Outside the shuttles, shards of space debris fly at light speeds directly at our eyes; inside the shuttles, the detritus of life – pens, pingpong paddles, headseats, droplets of water, drift toward us and beyond us, their vanquished users about to become stardust. What’s that old tagline about, “in space, no one can hear you scream?”
Speaking of which, Cuaron respects the silence of the cosmos by avoiding the sort of noisy explosions that were inserted, against his wishes, into the film’s trailers. But he can’t help himself regarding the use of a melodramatic score (courtesy of Steven Price), a rare Hollywood concession in a movie whose film grammar mostly avoids such trappings.
Perhaps plunging into the abyss with only the sounds of heavy breathing and dying machinery would have simply been too horrific for most of us to handle.
The Israeli film “Zaytoun,” meanwhile, has no such problem engaging in Hollywood-style sentimentality, despite its comparatively small release on the art-house circuit. “Zaytoun” is set during the 1982 war in Lebanon, where Yoni (Stephen Dorff), an Israeli soldier, is shot down and captured by a PLO group operating in occupied Beirut. The faction’s chief torturer is the pint-sized Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), a daredevil Palestinian refugee who watched his father perish in an Israeli air attack and has vowed revenge. But, realizing that he too wants to return to his homeland, Fahed and his antagonistic Israeli companion agree to escape to Israel/Palestine together – frenemies joined at the hip on a perilous journey.
Director Eran Riklis deserves credit for successfully transitioning the film’s many tones from war brutality to warm humor and touching pathos. He draws convincing work from Dorff, an American actor playing an English-speaking Israeli, and especially from El Akal, who wears a weathered, hardened visage, ably portraying a young man who’s already seen it all by age 15.
But it’s also syrupy and emotionally manipulative – note the director’s recurring use of the Spielbergian slow dolly onto a gaping face. Moreover, the kumbaya nature of the film’s border-defying, culture-merging message has the same false, Pollyanish tone of so many movies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Riklis’ own 2008 feature, “Lemon Tree.” Riklis’ heart is in the right place, but political correctness looks awfully milquetoast in this fractured milieu; marketable though it may be, it’s nothing more than a liberal fantasy of unification.
“Zaytoun” opens today at Living Room Theaters at FAU, Regal Shadowood 16 and Regal Delray Beach 18. "Gravity" opens at most area theaters.