It’s going to be hard to write about Alfonso Cuaron’s new film Gravity without constantly slipping into hyperbole. I’ve heard everything from, “best movie of the year” to, “best movie I’ve ever seen” and frankly it would be hard for me to argue with either of those sentiments. The sense of awe in Gravity is so palpable that I still am wondering days later – how did they do that? The best thing I can say is you’ve never seen anything like this before…ever.
Cuaron keeps the focus on his world by keeping the plot simple and slight. Medical Engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first mission aboard the Space Shuttle Explorer. Her mission is to implement a new scanning device that she created aboard a satellite to increase our ability to well…scan space. She is accompanied by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and a small crew that we only hear through headsets. This happens to be Kowalski’s last mission. He’s a wise cracking womanizer who motors around the installation site on his jetpack sharing stories with mission control in Houston (in a great bit of stunt casting, Ed Harris plays the voice of Houston) and lamenting the fact he will miss the space walking record by only a few minutes.
The mission goes horribly wrong when a Russian satellite explodes causing a ripple effect that shatters many satellites orbiting the globe, sending them hurtling towards the crew at the speed of a bullet. This wave of debris crashes into the Explorer sending Ryan hurtling into space with nothing but her headset. Kowalski is an experienced astronaut and without panic retrieves Ryan and from there they must make their way to the international space station before the rogue debris field makes its way around the earth once more.
Much has already been made of the visuals in Gravity and well…I’m going to pile on. Not since Avatar has a film created such a believable 3D-world. Cuaron uses long takes (the first 15-20 minutes of the film are one-continuous shot as the crew works to install the scanner) that weave in and out of the crew as they navigate the emptiness just above Earth’s atmosphere. All the while, Earth looms large and beautifully just in the periphery. It’s stunning to behold. Cuaron uses 3D admirably, not just by hurling things at the screen but creating depth in the vastness of space. As the characters move through the frame the 3D adds to the sense of dread that humans are nothing in space, not even a blip on a radar screen.
The same can be said for Cuaron’s use of sound. In fact, Gravity may be the quietest action film ever made. That’s because Cuaron adheres to the reality of space – THERE IS NO SOUND. So, as characters avoid debris, climb on the outside of ships and structures and fly through space, the only audible drivers are their voices and the films score. It’s an odd sensation and one that caught my audience off guard a few times. And while Cuaron does go for the big emotional bang one too many times Steven Price’s score gives the film an intense urgency that never lets up.
The fact that Cuaron and his son Jonas created believable characters is icing on the cake. Sandra Bullock is convincing as the rookie, thrust into panic on her first mission. We also gather through various conversations that she’s married to the job because of a rocky past. Bullock rarely takes on emotionally weighty territory but she carries it off with grace. Clooney is his normal charming self which does allow the film it’s few moments of levity and breath between set pieces. His presence in the film is calming because Kowalski has been there before.
Because of the film’s short run time (just under 90-minutes) it has to rely on big, emotional punches to help us learn and relate to these characters. Unfortunately, because of this, Gravity slips into sentimentality a few times. This is a minor nitpick but in a film this grand the nits are going to be decidedly minor.
It’s probably an understatement to say that Gravity is a monumental filmmaking achievement. It’s simply a world I have never seen before. Hell, it’s a world I didn’t even know I wanted to see. The film is a testament to the medium. In a year that has mostly sucked the joy out of Hollywood it is amazing to watch something wow a crowd again. It’s Alfonso Cuaron’s gift as a filmmaker and let’s hope he continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Gravity is cinema in its purest form. See it on the biggest screen you can.