I’ve sometimes wondered what it was like to sit in a movie theater and experience a spectacle that is truly breathtaking and groundbreaking. While the visual bombast of films like Man of Steel or Avengers are certainly impressive enough and make for good fun, there’s a sameness to them, a feeling that all of this is so easily rendered now that it’s just a matter of making sure each film is bigger, louder, and more destructive than the one before. What must it have been like for an audience in 1968 to witness the photorealistic majesty of 2001: A Space Odyssey, long before we had all been fried into submission by spectacle after spectacle? Would I ever know? Now I do. Gravity is that film.
Gravity is, in some ways, what the trailers tell you it is. The inhospitable vacuum of space provides all the horror you need via the creeping awareness that one more mistake could spell the end. And that’s the thing: the characters make MANY mistakes, as human beings tend to do, it’s just that the stakes are much, much higher when a missed grab, or a chance collision with something tiny, will expose the fragile human body to the extremes of outer space. “Life in space is impossible,” the film reminds us in a brief title card before things kick off. The movie then shows us how the human spirit can make all things possible, whether it’s the graceful acceptance of the inevitable…or the beauty in staring it down.
George Clooney turns in his usual, likable, confident performance as Matt Kowalski, a seasoned astronaut with a fondness for country music, rambling stories, and bad jokes. Make no mistake, though, Clooney isn’t phoning it in. Twice he surpasses expectations in two of the most powerful moments in a film that has no shortage of them. Despite Clooney’s usual, overbearing charm, it’s really Sandra Bullock’s show. Despite her Oscar win for The Blindside, Bullock is often dismissed as an actress who lacks (this is unavoidable, folks…I apologize) gravity. No more. The vulnerability, loneliness, and quiet power of her Dr. Ryan Stone is impossible to ignore.
Alfonso Cuarón (with the assistance of his Children of Men director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki) has crafted the most visually perfect spacescapes I’ve ever seen. Not for one second will you doubt what you’re seeing on-screen. From the opening shot, the film delivers moment after moment of “how the hell did they do that?” storytelling, with fluid, perfect, crystal clear vision. Nothing is out of place. Not a special effect, a lingering shot, a line of dialogue…none of it.
The 3D appears unobtrusive until it starts to dawn on you that you’re actually becoming immersed in the film. First it’s something as simple as the curve on a space suit’s visor, then it’s a piece of debris, and suddenly it’s a gorgeous section of Earth, seen from space. On a suitably large IMAX screen, you may find vertigo setting in. Cuarón keeps space (mostly) silent and allows Steven Price’s music (which slowly, imperceptibly builds from Pink Floyd/Orb like ambient serenity into more terrifying and/or triumphant territory as the film builds) to help tell the story.
Gravity is also one of the more economical films I’ve seen recently, and it does as much in ninety minutes as most film franchises do over the course of a trilogy. The film delivers more character moments (with TWO actors) in that 90 minutes than an entire Russian novel worth of superheroes do across entire franchises. It’s not that this is some quiet, low-key film, mind you. It just seems remarkable that a genre film from a major studio (with its own franchise preoccupations) that is so perfectly crafted and emotionally daring got made at all.
Virtually everything we’ve been taught to expect about big-budget studio movies is simply thrown out the airlock. A cast of dozens (or even a half-a-dozen), thousands of extras running in terror from some monolithic threat, quotable dialogue, frenetic jump-cuts or shaky cam, widespread destruction, all are nowhere to be found. But somehow, Gravity is as pulse-pounding, terrifying, and life-affirming as anything Hollywood has produced in the last decade or more, with none of those familiar tropes. The opening half hour appears to be composed of no more than three or four continuous shots. Logic tells you this is impossible, especially in a movie set in space, but whatever trickery they used to pull that illusion off is as impressive as any of the noisier, more obvious hallmarks of genre flicks these days.
Don’t get me wrong, I love films like that as much as anybody else. Alright, fine, you’ve got me…I like big, dumb, action-packed movies MORE than most folks, but the filmmanipulates your emotions and expectations with what is essentially a cast of two and a basic story that amounts to “survive long enough to get home.” If this sounds overly simplistic, well, the failing here is mine and not the film’s.
Do you love science fiction? See Gravity. Do you not particularly care for science fiction but want to see something original and moving? See Gravity. Do you think you’re prepared for some of the most stunning visuals ever put on the screen? See Gravity. Essentially, do you love movies? See Gravity. And do yourself a favor (and I’m not usually one to endorse this kind of thing), spend the extra few bucks on an IMAX ticket. Unless you’re afraid of heights.