There’s nothing quite like space to simultaneously elevate and humble humanity. There’s an aura of mystery and majesty associated with space that no camera can ever fully capture. Those astronauts fortunate enough to view the Earth from space, seeing what the rest of us can only dream of, are indeed basking in the some of the most breathtaking sights the human eye can possibly behold. Conversely, the slightest mistake, malfunction, or externality can ensure that said view will be the last thing you’ll ever see.
Gravity shows how editing and cinematographic proficiency can turn an average survival horror story into a transcendent and subversive work of art. It’s also one of the rare films where 3D isn’t just a gimmick.
A group of astronauts are spacewalking and working on their shuttle when a nearby Russian satellite explodes and sends a metal hailstorm straight at them, which destroys their shuttle, knocks out their communication with Houston, kills one of them, and leaves the other two stranded in space with their air supply rapidly expiring. So yeah, this film is Open Water in space.
Make no mistake; if this movie was in less capable hands, it would not receive nor earn the acclaim it’s assured to receive from audiences and critics alike. The story of Gravity occasionally feels a little slower than it ought to be for a 90-minute film and once we’re past the first act, the script gets a little predictable. And unlike the similar but far superior Cast Away, the characterization, attitude, and humanity of the protagonist aren’t the catch of the film. The environment is.
The crew behind the camera seems to understand just that. Outer space has never looked so big yet so small. On the one hand, Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone is spinning backwards away from the Earth at a rollicking speed, but when you see the Earth through the reflection of her helmet, it doesn’t look like she’s moved an inch. On the other hand, there’s a fleet of space debris orbiting the planet at bullet-speed and ravaging everything in their path that return every 90 minutes.
From the very first shot, Gravity’s gob-smacking visuals enrapture and hypnotize like no other movie in recent memory. The juxtaposition of imagery with one perfectly composed and stylistically maneuvered shot after another is essential for radically shifting the tone of the film from a vivid sensational dream to the worst nightmare ever (and I’ve been dreaming scenarios exactly like this since childhood). These visuals highlight a polarity that comes to define the film. Human achievement in science and engineering has brought us from gazing up at the stars to gazing down at Earth. We’ve gone from being among the first sea creatures that grew legs and walked on land to building vessels that broke our own planet’s thermosphere. But every breakthrough leaves us with the possibility that our next step will send us tumbling back down to where we began. And we have a long way to go before we become the masters of outer space.
The scope and action of this film are exhilarating, and it almost all seems to be the work of the camera. Stone’s struggles are coming from everywhere and all at once. She’s teetering between death by laceration, death by incineration, and death by asphyxiation. It’s a rare film where you don’t have to worry about the fact that Stone isn’t exactly a round character because you’re going to feel for her pain and suffering if the camera has to occasionally shift into first person view to make you.
There are few dull moments in this film. The tech artists pull off one cinematic trick after another with a fluidity that makes it look easy, turning what could have easily become a repetitive slog of a story into a viscerally exciting rollercoaster all the way to the very end. The intensity is amplified by an awesome score by Steven Price (who did the music for The World’s End) and methodical sound editing. When Stone reaches the International Space Station, lightheaded and tired but relieved that she can finally breathe oxygen again instead of what was left of her almost-empty space suit, there’s a scene where she curls up into a fetal position. And the camera pulls back to show how small and alone she feels in this universe. As it turns out, the movie isn’t done with her quite yet.
And I won’t spoil how Gravity ends, but pay close attention to the way the camera moves, and you might just get the awesome metaphor.
I realize I’ve spent most of this review talking about the visuals. The acting is fine but the casting decision of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as a veteran space shuttle pilot and medical engineer respectively never stops feeling weird. Then again, the idea of watching such glamorous and dignified stars get their butts kicked by the universe was a major selling point of this film to begin with (for me at least). If there’s one other thing that bothered me in the film, it’s that we never got to see the Moon. It feels like a logical extra step that they didn’t care to take.
If you’ve seen the trailer, there’s a good chance you don’t want to see this film, unless you have a hard-on for this kind of spectacle like I do. Every time I saw this trailer at the theater, at least one person in the audience would blurt out: “Hell…no!” But I’m here to tell you that you absolutely should. Open Water wasn’t enough to stop me from becoming a SCUBA Diver, and this movie, unnerving as it is, only makes me more enamored with the idea of space exploration. What we have here is an extremely well-crafted film by director Alfonso Cuarón, who will hopefully finally receive the recognition he deserves as a serious talent in Hollywood and not just a guest director in the Harry Potter series, and five-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki.
I really can’t praise this film enough. Gravity is a blast of a film that defines the term “must-see”. Go see it!!!
The Good: The jaw-dropping visuals, the nerve-wracking scenario, the clever cinematography, the metaphors, the sound effects, the score, and the 3D.
The Bad: A lot of the dialogue, some parts of the characterization, and the predictability.
The Ugly: Nothing! This is one of the best looking films of the year.