A white-knuckle, technically flawless masterpiece, Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY is the theatergoing experience of the year.
I hate space.
I had to drive home in silence, and when I got there I was still shaking.
Gravity is a film unlike anything I’ve ever seen; it’s pure cinema magic. An absolutely stunning, heaven-and-earth-shaking work of art. The emotions at play here are deeply primal; it grabs you from the opening frame, continuing through an opening shot that goes a heart-pounding 17 minutes without a cut, and doesn’t let go. For 99% of us, it’s the closest we will ever come to being in space itself…and kind of confirms that I don’t ever really wish to go. What Jaws did for the ocean, Gravity does for the biggest ocean of them all.
It’s been seven long years since Children of Men, with its epic tracking shots, fluid camerawork, and haunting vision of a dystopic future. Cuaron is one of the very best at making the horrific seem horrifyingly plausible, grounding his stories in reality (even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the best film of the series for it’s complete mastery of tone) and keeping us on the edges of our seats.Gravity is about survival and faith, shot through with humanity even in the cold vastness of space.
James Cameron, upon the release of Avatar, was quick to proclaim his film “the future of cinema,” bringing photo-realistic effects to the screen in an immersive three dimensions. Meanwhile, Cuaron quietly went about crafting a work of such technical wizardry, it exposes Avatar for the cartoon it is. I have honestly no idea how Cuaron and his team created some of these shots, as the camera bobs and weaves from great distances, to inside an astronaut’s helmet and back again, and I don’t think I even WANT to know. I don’t want to break the spell. The film looks impossible, is impossible, yet it exists — as if beamed in from the literal, actual “future of cinema.”
Okay. Maybe that’s enough hyperbolic gushing…for the moment.
Sent up to repair the Hubble Telescope, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, with all of her Bullock-ness) and her commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, with…all of his Clooney-ness) face an unprecedented space emergency when cascading debris from a Russian satellite tears into their shuttle, killing the rest of their crew and leaving Stone & Kowalski stranded. It’s a heart attack of a sequence, and the actors — particularly Bullock — play it perfectly. She’s the less-trained scientist, uncomfortable being out of the craft, and suddenly sent spinning into the abyss; he’s the charismatic veteran, (of course) on his final scheduled mission, placidly confident even in these harrowing circumstances. The two must attempt to leapfrog from station to station until they can find a transport to get home.
Though Clooney is charming, the film belongs to Sandra Bullock, and she’ll almost assuredly get a Best Actress nomination next year for her vulnerable, naturalistic performance. She draws us in not with histrionics, but with subtlety. Cuaron offered the role of Stone to — perhaps literally — every actress in Hollywood, and Angelina Jolie was attached to star for a while (opposite Robert Downey Jr., no less), but few actresses could have brought the depth and grace that Bullock does here. It’s especially impressive considering how much work she has to do inside that bulky suit, harnessed to a “zero-gravity” rig, with the camera swooping inches from her face.
If there is any flaw to be found, it’s in the writing. While the film runs a scant 90 minutes (heroically, I’d say, considering the bulk and bombast of previous Academy fare) and the story is appropriately lean, Cuaron — along with his co-writer and son, Jonas — makes the choice to give Dr. Stone a devastating backstory. On the one hand, this makes her decision to either accept her fate or push forward that much more palpable, but on the other it ventures into occasionally making the subtext text, and feeling false. Could more silence have been appropriate? Perhaps, but she would have just been a cipher, an audience stand-in. To dimensionalize Dr. Stone as a character was smart, but I don’t think it needed to be taken to that extreme.
Similarly, Cuaron’s love of visual symbolism is more pronounced in this film, with the “re-birth” metaphor becoming unusually heavy-handed by the end. I don’t typically pick that kind of stuff out at first viewing, and the fact that I did may not have been a good thing. Gravity is a film that projects intimate ideas onto a massive scale, which means that even its underlying message hits like an anvil when a simple nudge will do.
Even so, given the scope of what’s been accomplished here, these are just quibbles that don’t diminish the film as an experience in the slightest. And truly, it must be experienced, in full 3-D on the largest screen available — the film’s greatest power is how it completely envelopes you. The sound design, effects, minimalistic (but effective) score, and exceptional lead performance work in tandem with Cuaron’s pioneering vision. We’ll be talking about Gravity for a long, long time, alongside Inception, The Matrix, and Fellowship of the Ring as a true “lightning bolt” film, challenging our ideas about what the medium is capable of. It’s not just a technical milestone; it’s an instant classic.