How many times have you looked up to the sky after dark and gotten lost in the wonder that is the night sky? For many people, being an astronaut is probably their earliest childhood dream. To be able to walk among those specks of light, to stare infinity in the eyes without flinching; these ideals stay with us even as we outgrow those childhood aspirations. We have spent most of our lives romanticizing the mysteries and wonders of space and the great unknown. Alfonso Cuarón has arrived to shatter that vision. In his hands, space is a place where nightmares are born and thrive. Perhaps not since Ridley Scott’s classic entry into the horror genre, Alien, has the prospect of being in space been so terrifying. Despite the discomfort, Cuarón still allows for some of that sense of wonder to creep in on what is otherwise an extremely harrowing tale. The true beauty of Gravity, however, is just how well it works on nearly every level. This is the must-see movie of the year.
Bio-medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone, portrayed by Sandra Bullock, is on her first mission in space, and it shows. She is nervous, nauseous, and not up for any nonsense. Her polar opposite is mission commander Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut played by George Clooney, who is enjoying his last time in space before retirement. Kowalski’s showboating comes to an abrupt end when Houston gives word of a Russian satellite that has been shot down; the resulting debris field is headed straight towards the astronauts’ shuttle and the Hubble space telescope on which they were working. With orders to abandon their mission immediately, Kowalski urges Stone to finish her work on the telescope and follow him back into the shuttle. Unfortunately, a split-second of hesitation on Stone’s part results in their getting caught in the debris field as its orbit puts it on a collision course with their shuttle and the telescope. Both objects experience catastrophic damage, and in the ensuing chaos, Stone is untethered from a spinning portion of the shuttle and launched into space. Running low on oxygen and with no means of controlling her movement or trajectory in the zero gravity environment, Stone struggles to survive in the void that is outer space.
Bullock is widely recognized as the leading woman of modern Hollywood. In terms of bankability, her films continue to bring in money and ticket sales like no other. In terms of acting ability, she has an Academy Award for Best Actress under her belt for her work on The Blind Side. Now, I thought she was good in The Blind Side, but I suppose I never really understood why she won the Oscar. I haven’t seen many of her movies, but I’ve seen enough to say that she has definitely given some decent-to-poor performances in the past (Premonition strikes me as being particularly bad.) Still, I won’t deny that she is talented when given some good material to work with. What Cuarón and his son Jónas have given her is better than good; it is fantastic. What does Bullock do with the juicy role of Dr. Stone? She inhabits it. Truly, this is quite possibly an all-time-best performance in a career that has certainly been punctuated with excellence. Bullock absolutely sells Stone as the newbie astronaut who is in almost completely over her head when disaster strikes. Peel back the layers and you’ve got a woman who is jaded, cynical, and vulnerable, due to a traumatic past event that she simply can’t get over. Peel even further, and you find a tenacity and intelligence that is downright inspiring. Bullock wonderfully rounds out all of these aspects of her character, and brings them to life, fully realized. She may just yet have to clear some more space on her Oscar shelf.
Clooney essentially plays himself in the role of mission commander Kowalski. His easy charisma is on full display as he shows off the jetpack he is test-driving, cajoles Stone, and regales Houston with colorful stories from his times back on solid ground. When disaster is imminent, though, he is absolutely serious, adhering to protocol and making us believe that he is a veteran astronaut. Even when they are adrift, though, Clooney is calm and collected, in direct contrast to Bullock’s panicky Stone. Clooney also conveys that wide-eyed sense of wonder; this is a man that still sees beauty in the miracle that is his being in space, floating over the Earth and amongst the stars. He is a stand-in for the audience, in awe at everything around him. Clooney brings the much-needed levity to what is otherwise an absolute nail-biter of a film, and his appreciation of his surroundings reminds the viewer, and Stone, that space isn’t all that bad. That is, despite all of Cuarón’s attempts to make it seem so.
Gravity is a very minimalistic film in some respects, one of those being in its cast. Bullock carries the film outside of periodic interjections by Clooney. Besides them, however, there is almost no one. I would like to take a moment to point out how clever it was that Cuarón cast Ed Harris as the voice of Houston Mission Control in the beginning of the film. Harris’s voice is immediately recognizable, as he played a very similar role in another space disaster film, Apollo 13. The sound of his voice in the early parts of the film lulls the viewer into a sense of comfort and security, the void seeming all the more barren the moment that the astronauts lose radio contact with Houston.
Cuarón brought aboard his son Jónas to help him write the screenplay for Gravity. The script is another testament to Cuarón’s minimalist approach to the film; with few characters, sparse dialogue, and a relatively straightforward and even predictable plot, one might think that the two panicked and floundered when they were writing the film. This would be a complete disservice. The script can only be called elemental; it works in broad concepts and a handful of very well laid out set pieces, pared down to a breakneck 90 minutes of pure, unfiltered tension. The pacing of the film, especially, turns Gravity into one of the most tense and intense films I have ever seen. Not a single moment was wasted with bloat or fluff. Other screenwriters take note: this is how you write a concise, incredibly effective film. Beyond the pacing, the characters that the Cuaróns write are merely shells with ideas attached to them, shells that the actors easily enter and ideas that they then fully flesh out. Meanwhile, the set pieces are all essential to the film and to the plight of the astronauts; there are no superfluous explosions to be found here. Finally, the plot, while relatively simplistic, is merely a canvas on which the elder Cuarón conveys broad concepts and themes about life, death, rebirth, purpose, etc. Truly, doctorate theses could easily be written on the themes in this film. It may just seem like this is another survival story, a la 127 Hours or the like, but scratching the surface of the film reveals even more. I, for one, cannot wait to watch it again and thoroughly analyze it.
For a long time, I’ve been a huge fan of Cuarón’s work as a director. The first film of his that I saw was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and while he took many creative and artistic liberties with that film, I can honestly say that it is my favorite of the series. I found his choices, even then, to be daring and inventive. He further ingratiated me with the brilliant dystopian film Children of Men, during which I fell in love with his gritty aesthetic, masterful pacing, and unique direction. Gravity is a maestro at the absolute crescendo of his talent. The effects that Cuarón developed for this film, when combined with his stunning use of perspective shots and his gorgeous, signature long takes, make for an awe-inspiring experience that comes across as seamless. Gravity looks like a space documentary; that’s how realistic his footage seems. On top of the cinematography, his direction of the set pieces and the harrowing events he puts the astronauts through make for one of the best action thrillers that I have ever seen. You will be on the edge of your seat for the entire blistering 90-minute runtime. Still, the scientific accuracy of these set pieces is questionable. Inconsistencies with the laws of physics and the locations of certain objects in their orbits around Earth do crop up. Cuarón has at least admitted that the film is not 100 percent accurate, but the roughly 85 percent accuracy that he achieves is still enough to mesmerize, stun, and elevate the film beyond the few missteps he makes in the name of plot progression and entertainment.
Cinematography in Gravity is on par with the rest of the film. That is to say, it is superb. You have never seen a film like this. It is absolutely gorgeous, with long takes that fully immerse the viewer and make the void of space seem all-encompassing. The sense of scale seen in this film is unlike anything Hollywood has put out in recent memory. Combined with the effects work and arguably the best use of 3D since Avatar, Gravity has some of the best visuals that I have ever seen in a movie. This may sound like hyperbole, but in this regard at the very least, it has few peers. Meanwhile, the music in Gravity is also something of a revelation. Without the competition of loud explosions and other noises in the soundless vacuum of space, the music gets an opportunity to truly stand out. Composer Steven Price takes this opportunity to produce one of the most memorable scores in a long while. His music heightens and complements the tension wonderfully, and the musical theme at the end of the film is truly inspiring. Overall, Gravity’s technical presentation is as jaw-dropping as other aspects of the film and is reason alone to see this movie.
Oftentimes, movies will come along in which everything comes together well and all the boxes are checked off. Movies like this are excellent, and should certainly be seen. However, every once in a while, a movie comes along that meets the same standards but operates on an entirely different level. Gravity is that kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie that future filmmakers will look back to as their primary source of career choice inspiration. It’s a movie that makes going to theaters relevant again because you can be sure that this film absolutely needs to be seen on the largest screen possible. Finally, it’s a movie that reminds us of why we even go to the movies; it returns a sense of awe and wonder to cinemas that only seminal films like Jurassic Park can attest to doing. Gravity is the best film of the year, and any film coming out before the end of 2013 will be hard-pressed to knock it from the top spot. Simply put, Gravity demands to be seen.