Alfonso Cuarón's first feature film in seven years, Gravity, is a breathtaking achievement in filmmaking that refuses to let some of the best movie visuals in years overshadow a moving and personal human story.
Cinematic space films, especially science-fiction, have done a wonderful job capturing the immensity and grandeur and awesome potential of life in space, but not nearly as comprehensive a job in depicting the inherent danger. Space is so inhospitable, so fundamentally contrary to our existence that it is almost impossible to overstate the equipment, training and precautions necessary to exist in it for even a short period of time. The fact that we hairless apes have managed to do this to such a degree that it has become almost routine is at once a triumph and a tragedy for our species.
Gravity takes place almost exclusively at a point 250 miles above the surface of the earth, where the space shuttle Explorer has carried mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and payload specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) to effect an upgrade to the Hubble Space Telecope. No time is wasted in setup or explanation or, thankfully, a training montage; you are dropped in as an eavesdropper in the middle of some finicky hardware adjustments just moments before an unforeseen event renders every goal except survival completely moot.
I went in knowing very little, in fact, almost nothing about this film, and I believe this is the best way to see it. So what can I tell you? Once the accident happens, you are made very aware of just how deadly an environment space is, compared to other dangerous places we've seen in movies. Stone's dizzying perspective as she tumbles head over heels away from the shuttle with no tether or maneuvering jets on her spacesuit makes you keenly aware of human helplessness in such a scenario; with no purchase or means of stopping, limited air, no hope of rescue from another quarter, and the voice of the only person who can assist her getting fainter and fainter, you are very likely to find yourself gripping your armrest, clenching your teeth in sympathetic frustration, and probably holding your breath.
Cuarón does a fantastic job depicting the beauty of our planet from orbit. Regardless of how Neil DeGrasse Tyson might feel, the writer/director takes no unreasonable liberties that I can see with regards to the manner in which objects behave in space; the lack of sound, the speed of orbital velocities, the delicacy of a satellite's solar array contrasted with its relentlessness once it or items around it become ballistic. You really should see Gravity in a theatre, on as large a screen as you can manage (we couldn't make it to IMAX, but did see it in UltraAVX), and yes, you will probably want to see it in 3D; Cuarón is the kind of director that uses this increasingly sketchy medium to its fullest potential (which make sense when you realize he both idolizes and is friends with James Cameron).
I can't tell you how long some of the shots are in Gravity, as every time I noticed, I was quickly swept up into the story or gobsmacked by astonishing visuals to count. Cuarón's decided to go with wire work instead of actual zero-G, as the NASA reduced gravity aircraft, affectinately nicknamed the 'Vomit Comet', only provides about 25 seconds of floating at a time. As much as I appreciate this recent regression towards practical effects instead of CGI, you still feel like you are actually in space, watching the events transpire from a variety of perspectives; most convincingly while looking out the imperfect and sometimes foggy viewpoint of an actual spacesuit helmet.
Gravity is not a movie that just anyone could make. Without a compelling human through-line, it could very quickly devolve into competence porn, but in the second act, the question is asked: why go on at all? and this is where the movie picks up the bulk of its emotional heft.
You hate to use words like existential when describing a movie, especially one making as much money as Gravity has, but it fits. Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, Bullock spends the majority of her screen time alone, much of it without even a friendly voice on the radio. Seeing her come to grips with this solitude, as well as her realization that perhaps she is not quite as alone as she might have feared, is to watch an Oscar-winning actress proving that she didn't get it by chance alone.
Clooney is a great choice for an experienced astronaut commanding a space mission; his confidence and swagger doesn't cross the line into arrogance, but you can see it from where he is. More importantly, he needs very little screen time to establish himself as someone who will do whatever it takes for the sake of those in his care. You can hear some of the same tones in the disembodied voice of Ed Harris, the voice of Mission Control in Houston.
While not appropriate for very young children due to its intensity in places, Gravity is a film suitable for almost everyone else, not just those who might enjoy a 'space' movie. While it is more science fact than science fiction, the largest journey is the one taken by Bullock's reluctant voyager, and it is one that anyone should be able to relate to and appreciate. I'm just grateful to Alfonso Cuarón for having chosen such an amazing canvas for an intensely human portrait.