Gravity tells the harrowing account of specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a scientist-turned-fledgling astronaut working on a space station that is suddenly obliterated by an onslaught of space debris. In the midst of the calamity Ryan is thrown “off structure” and into vastness of space, with only veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) still able to hear her cries for help.
What follows next is a step-by-meticulous-step bid for survival in the harsh realm of the cosmos, as Ryan must not only best physical obstacles, but also the mental/spiritual obstacles standing between her and the will to survive.
The brainchild of acclaimed Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter 3, Children of Men), Gravity is nothing less than a stunning visual achievement wrapped around a solid storyline and yet another surprisingly good performance from Sandra Bullock. In short: it is one of the top cinematic experiences of the year (so far) – arguably one of the top cinematic achievements of the last few years.
From the very first segment – a one-take tracking shot that clocks in at approximately 10 – 15 minutes – it is clear that, visually speaking, Curaón has created an experience unlike anything previously seen in cinema. It’s likely that film school essays will be written on this film for years to come, so to keep things in simple perspective: Cuarón is already hailed as one of the few true auteurs in modern cinema, and this is definitely his masterpiece. From the breathtaking cinematography and photography, to the impossible (but astounding) camera movements – to the visual concepts and set pieces that make genius use of outer space physics – this is directorial talent and imagination on a whole other scale.
Even when the technology hits a wall (some moments in the film fall into that CGI “valley of the uncanny”), the ambition of what’s being done, at the level it’s being done, fills in for the deficiencies in F/X. 3D viewing is a must, IMAX if you can. Gravity is prime example of what so many film fans want: new filmmaking formats (like 3D IMAX) actually being used to further expand and push the boundaries of cinematic art and storytelling. And thanks to Cuarón, it’s all masterfully handled in this film.
Usually I ‘m not one to address a film’s sound design in a review – but with Gravity it is a must. The filmmakers’ understanding of their unique setting (space) allows them to play with the relativity between sound and visuals in a way that few other films get the opportunity to. Immense danger flies in on silent wings; the only rhythm to a scene of blockbuster-style destruction is the breath and whimpers of the lead actress, etc. This is a movie that commands the ear’s attention as much as it does the eye’s, and the interplay between the sound effects and composer Steven Price’s (The World’s End, Attack the Block) grandiose score - think Kubrick meets Hans Zimmer – elevates everything that Cuarón is doing visually, resulting in a complete feast of sensory experience.
Gravity is a landmark in filmmaking, sure, but on paper the story it tells is (slightly) less remarkable. The script was co-written by Cuarón and his son Jonás; it is, admittedly, a very lean and efficient piece of thrilling dramatic storytelling, with the writers also managing to inject some larger themes and deeper emotions into the proceedings. However, when one pulls back and examines it, Gravity is also a somewhat standard point-A-to-B survival thriller, which relies on many familiar - at times cliche – sub-genre tropes.
When the chase is on, things are great; when we stop for those inevitable moments of breath-catching (pun intended), the movie is still good, just not great. And because we are watching a chain of A-B-C disasters and challenges unfold into one another, moments of breath-catching in the film (a.k.a., clearly marked moments of character and thematic development) tend feel even more extraneous and melodramatic – especially when there is just one character onscreen to juggle them. Still, a film does require narrative development and the Cuaróns find a pretty strong emotional through-line to follow; however, when the action and visuals take a back seat, Gravity definitely loses some of its gravitas, and could arguably be criticized as watching Sandra Bullock float around space for an hour and a half (though such reductive thinking would be highly specious, given the revolutionary design and execution of the film).
Thankfully, the cost of those developmental moments is tapered by another good performance from Bullock. The actress proves to be a smart choice, in that she is able to find the pitch-perfect balance required to play a character who is normally highly-intelligent, resourceful, witty (and deeply damaged), but has been thrown into a situation of unimaginable panic and fear. The role requires everything from multi-layered and subtle emoting (often in close-up camera frame) to some dizzying “wire-fu” acrobatics, and Bullock delivers on all fronts in highly convincing and impressive fashion. (NOTE: Sigourney Weaver never had worry about a three-dimensional scene in nothing but her space skivvies, but Bullock manages to own that moment, too!)
As the only other actor we really see onscreen, Clooney is definitely going to be the more divisive element of the film. The character of Matt Kowalski is a smart and suave foil to Stone’s inexperienced and panic-stricken character; however, what is going to distract some people is the fact that they are ostensibly watching George Clooney riffing on his own suave-guy persona, down to mid-crisis flirtations with his leading lady. Depending on how you feel about Clooney, the acting choice could irk you; then again, Kowalski does bringing the only real levity and relief from a lot of well-staged tension, and Clooney does gallows humor pretty well, so take all that for what it’s worth.
(NOTE: Yes, that voice from Mission Control you hear in the film is actor Ed Harris, in case it was bugging you.)
In the end, Gravity is one of those movie events that comes around once in a great while to remind us why theatrical viewing still holds potential for a unique and unequaled cinematic experience. As a story and character vehicle for Bullock, it would still rate as a four-star movie – but given what Cuarón has done here for film as a medium, Gravity is nothing less than a five-star 2001 space odyssey for a whole new generation of movie lovers. Take the ride.
Gravity is now in theaters. Is is 90 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language.
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