‘Gravity’ (2013): When the Camera Adds Weight (Review)

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.

Overall: 8.9/10

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.

  • Dan O’Neill

    Good review Vivek. While I can’t say that I’m loving it to death like everybody else is, I do have to say that as a pure spectacle, it works very well.

  • The Vern

    I may not eat for a few days, but Damn I really want to watch this. Glad you told me the 3D was worth it

  • Chris Widdop

    Nice review. Definitely a must see! :)

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Some things needn’t be more than that. :)

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Yeah, the 3D had a hell of a multiplier effect on the film.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Thanks!!!

  • rich

    Here’s my problem with the film, and it’s not a small problem. if you’re going to make a film like this, you have to get everything technically and scientifically correct. cuaron did not.

    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    when stone and kowalksi are tethered together and floating towards the ISS, her leg gets caught in the straps of a deployed parachute. this stops her, and – by the rules of a vacuum, which space is a vacuum – this must also stop kowalski. however, he seems to be pulling her away from the station, so much so that he voluntarily unhooks himself from the tether in order to save her and sacrifice himself.

    if space is a vacuum, he should stop when she stops. he should not continue to exert a force away from the ISS. after he unhooks himself, he then floats away. wrong. that would not happen. and i don’t want anyone to say, “well, you have to accept that.” bullshit. no i don’t.

    the film opens with a graphic explaining something about the laws of physics in space. by doing that, you are establishing that you are going to follow every bit of reality. this will not be a mission: impossible film in which tom cruise is on the front of an exploding helicopter and will land harmlessly on another vehicle – all while inside a tunnel.

    that being said, it was a great film, and i would easily recommend it to anyone, but that moment was too obvious to overlook. what i also didn’t like was having to wonder why a medical officer, a doctor, was responsible for fixing the hubble telescope while two other crew members were floating around just for fun. i know that each crew member has multiple roles, but it seemed odd that the most vital part of the mission was given to a surgeon instead of a techie.

    jus’ sayin’

  • Samantha Driver

    ****SPOILER ALERT!! Please don’t read beyond this point if you haven’t seen the movie!!*****
    First and foremost: thank you Vivek for writing this review. I really enjoyed it! However, I did identify some elements of the movie that I think you overlooked, and I want to point them out. Please don’t think that I mean for my comments to be any way detracting from your review – I just took very different things away from the movie than you did, and I think that hearing my thoughts might enrich your perception of the movie :).

    Your review left out what I considered to be the differentiator in making this movie more than just a “sci-fi thriller”: the very human element of rebirth and metamorphosis that Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone experiences throughout the course of the film. In my opinion, when you get down to the core of it, this is not a movie *about* space; rather, this is a movie about a woman overcoming her trauma and going through a cycle of emotional rebirth that happens to take place in space.
    I have been disappointed reading reviews of this movie because so many reviewers only seem to have things to say about the visual spectacle. They have nothing to say about all of the rich symbolism of rebirth and the intense philosophical ideas that it puts forward. For example, in your review you mention the scene when Stone first arrives in the ISS and is curled up in fetal position while floating in the entryway as being indicative of her aloneness in the universe, but you don’t mention the fact that the cords behind her were arranged such that they mimicked an umbilical cord. She was literally floating in the fetal position with a symbolic umbilical cord coming out of her body; if that isn’t a clear metaphor for being in the womb I don’t know what is. And the fact that in the final scene she is literally pulling herself out of the water, crawling, and then re-learning how to walk with a final upwards shot of her standing alone in what looks like it could be a primordial wilderness with epic musing in the background – I don’t understand how people can overlook that kind of symbolism. This movie isn’t just about “survival” in space, it’s about rebirth and transformation – it’s about the fear of confronting your own traumas and learning to reclaim your life as your own. (I could go into further hypothesizing about the symbolism of “transformation” and “evolution” in that final scene with the fact that a frog swims past her in the water and how her progress out of the water possibly mimics the steps of evolution, but I don’t want to get too nitty-gritty English-major-ey :).)
    I also want to address how you mention that the dialogue and slow-paced scenes are weaknesses of the film – I couldn’t disgaree more! They are what *makes* this film so much more than just eye candy! I think that the scene when Bullock is in the ISS pod is by far the best in the film. Without all of the explosions, without all of the camera effects, we are suddenly able to think about all of the philosophical elements of her situation. Watching her confront her own mortality and come to the realization that she has led a life so closed-off on Earth that no-one would mourn her was absolutely devastating to watch. And the hallucinatory scene with George Clooney, where he forces her to face the trauma of losing her daughter and makes her realize that she really does value her own life and actually wants to live – I’ll admit, I had to restrain myself to keep from sobbing in the theater. *That* is what makes this such a great movie, not just because it’s a visual spectacle. Think about “Avatar”; that movie was great to look at, but the story had about as much depth as a sandbox. For me, it was this representation of rebirth and transformation that made this movie live up to the hype. I went in expecting to feel like the movie was over-rated because I was expecting just a sci-fi thriller; what I *wasn’t* expecting was to watch a woman find a restored value in her own life through her struggle to survive in space. But that’s what is so great about this movie – it was both! And I really wish that more critics seemed to notice.

  • Samantha Driver

    I apologize for posting this as a response to Rich’s comment! I meant to post it as its own independent thread.

  • Samantha Driver

    ***SPOILER ALERT!! Please don’t read beyond this point if you haven’t seen the movie!!*****

    First and foremost: thank you Vivek for writing this review. I really enjoyed it! However, I did identify some elements of the movie that I think you overlooked, and I want to point them out. Please don’t think that I mean for my comments to be any way detracting from your review – I just took very different things away from the movie than you did, and I think that hearing my thoughts might enrich your perception of the movie :).

    Your review left out what I considered to be the differentiator in making this movie more than just a “sci-fi thriller”: the very human element of rebirth and metamorphosis that Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone experiences throughout the course of the film. In my opinion, when you get down to the core of it, this is not a movie *about* space; rather, this is a movie about a woman overcoming her trauma and going through a cycle of emotional rebirth that happens to take place in space.

    I have been disappointed reading reviews of this movie because so many reviewers only seem to have things to say about the visual spectacle. They have nothing to say about all of the rich symbolism of rebirth and the intense philosophical ideas that it puts forward. For example, in your review you mention the scene when Stone first arrives in the ISS and is curled up in fetal position while floating in the entryway as being indicative of her aloneness in the universe, but you don’t mention the fact that the cords behind her were arranged such that they mimicked an umbilical cord. She was literally floating in the fetal position with a symbolic umbilical cord coming out of her body; if that isn’t a clear metaphor for being in the womb I don’t know what is. And the fact that in the final scene she is literally pulling herself out of the water, crawling, and then re-learning how to walk with a final upwards shot of her standing alone in what looks like it could be a primordial wilderness with epic musing in the background – I don’t understand how people can overlook that kind of symbolism. This movie isn’t just about “survival” in space, it’s about rebirth and transformation – it’s about the fear of confronting your own traumas and learning to reclaim your life as your own. (I could go into further hypothesizing about the symbolism of “transformation” and “evolution” in that final scene with the fact that a frog swims past her in the water and how her progress out of the water possibly mimics the steps of evolution, but I don’t want to get too nitty-gritty English-major-ey :).)

    I also want to address how you mention that the dialogue and slow-paced scenes are weaknesses of the film – I couldn’t disgaree more! They are what *makes* this film so much more than just eye candy! I think that the scene when Bullock is in the ISS pod is by far the best in the film. Without all of the explosions, without all of the camera effects, we are suddenly able to think about all of the philosophical elements of her situation. Watching her confront her own mortality and come to the realization that she has led a life so closed-off on Earth that no-one would mourn her was absolutely devastating to watch. And the hallucinatory scene with George Clooney, where he forces her to face the trauma of losing her daughter and makes her realize that she really does value her own life and actually wants to live – I’ll admit, I had to restrain myself to keep from sobbing in the theater. *That* is what makes this such a great movie, not just because it’s a visual spectacle. Think about “Avatar”; that movie was great to look at, but the story had about as much depth as a sandbox. For me, it was this representation of rebirth and transformation that made this movie live up to the hype. I went in expecting to feel like the movie was over-rated because I was expecting just a sci-fi thriller; what I *wasn’t* expecting was to watch a woman find a restored value in her own life through her struggle to survive in space. But that’s what is so great about this movie – it was both! And I really wish that more critics seemed to notice.

  • rich

    how. dare. you. ;)

  • rich

    when vivek mentioned the fetal position, anyone who has seen the film will have already computed the umbilical cord image, so it was not necessary, nor would it be wrong, for him to mention it.

    also, the “rebirth” and surviving trauma are secondary issues for me. it’s like when a character in an action movie is a badass, they always have to throw in something about him being beaten as a child and a throwaway moment to explain or justify his badassness. same here with the story about her daughter. it could have been anything thrown in just to explain why she was rather distant. actually, for me, that was too cliché. as was naming her character “stone” in order to symbolize how introverted she was.

  • rich

    and another thing – When Stone is drifting in space and then saved by Kowalski, she is extremely low on oxygen. Yet, Kowalski is carrying on a conversation with her, asking her too many questions. Questions require answers, answers require speaking, and speaking uses more oxygen than not speaking. He should have kept quiet and told her to do that same. She, the doctor, should have known that herself.

  • Samantha Driver

    I mentioned the umbilical cord directly because I wanted to offer my specific interpretation of the scene, which was different from Vivek’s and in which mention of the umbilical cord *was* necessary. I saw that scene not so much as symbolizing her alone-ness in the universe, as was Vivek’s take, but rather as the first stage in the cycle of her rebirth after coming very close to death. She confronted death, then got a second chance at life and went back to where it all starts – the womb, which is why I made sure to mention the symbolic umbilical cord. But like I said, I didn’t say this to detract from his review or the fact that he didn’t mention it – I’m just trying to point out my differing interpretation of the movie and I elaborated on that scene in particular.
    And while I see where you’re coming from, I don’t see the characters’ story as secondary. I don’t think that the fact that her daughter died was just “thrown in” and could have been replaced with any old backstory, because it ended up being the definitive factor in whether or not she lived or died. I’ll admit, during the early scene that she and George Clooney were talking and she told the story about her daughter dying I thought to myself “Yeesh! That seems like an unncessarily dark backstory,” but as the film progressed I realized that that backstory was really the backbone of the film. In my view, the climax of the film comes not when she survives the trip back to Earth, but when she and George Clooney are talking in the ISS pod and she is able to let go of her trauma and embrace her willingness to live again. It sounds like you are approaching the movie from the opposite standpoint: as a sci-fi thriller about survival in which the character development is supplementary material. Which is a fair interpretation and one that the majority of critics seem to be taking! I just wanted to point out that I feel like the film is able to do both, which is what impressed me about it.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Hey Sam!!!

    I absolutely got the umbilical cord reference. I wanted to weave it into my review somehow but explaining it didn’t srem to fit so I just figured that I’d mention it and bring up the other metaphor about her loneliness and trust that the bigger ideas of the human experience are best only impllied in the review but would be as obvious as a sledgehammer once you see it. But you’re right. That metaphor was clear as day, though the other one you mentioned about her crawling out of the water and standing up was too much of a spoiler, which was why I said that I wouldn’t spoil it.

    As for the dialogue, I thought that what better conveyed the compelling emotions of the film was Bullock’s acting in precisely how she said it. I didn’t think the dialofue was bad; just the weaker link of the movie, but I absolutely accept your point about Stone’s characterization through it as being sufficient in making her empathizable.

  • rich

    but here’s another problem with that dialogue regarding the death of stone’s daughter, her hometown in illinois, etc. those astronauts go through nearly a year of training before each mission. they know each other inside and out, and it his highly unlikely that clooney would not have already known all of that information. the crew needs to know each other inside and out, like husband and wife, and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses because their lives are literally in each other’s hands.

    this shows a lacking on cuaron’s part. he needed bullock to talk about her daughter for our convenience. however, clooney didn’t know about it. why not? there are only two possibilities. cuaron altered what would be the reality of astronauts for the convenience of dialogue, or clooney was so selfish that he never paid attention or cared to learn enough about his partner. either way, it’s lacking. no astronaut would be that selfish, although you can argue he was because of how much he cared about breaking the spacewalk record.

    maybe i’m overanalyzing, but like i said in my own review – you don’t make a film like this unless you’re going to get everything right. cuaron did not and took liberties that could have been fixed with a little more work. i think the CGI was driving the bus instead of the information and story.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Or it was one of those “tell me a story for your own benefit so it takes your mind off the present.”

  • rich

    not this. nobody goes to this effort, bringing in clooney and bullock, for an easy “escape” film. that’s chick flicks, shoot ‘em up’s, and sci fi/fantasy.

  • rich

    Vivek, please don’t take this as a criticism of you. Instead, this question is for me to gain understanding of something that i am struggling with. i don’t know how a film can get both an 8.9 out of 10 and also include “I really can’t praise this film enough….a blast of a film that defines the term “must-see”. Go see it!!!” from my perspective, any film that is called the definition of “Must-see” has to be more highly rated than what amounts to 89%. for me, if i say, “i can’t praise this film enough,” that means i’m right about 100% on it. there’s no room for improvement. but here there is roughly 11% room for improvement.

    i know it’s subjective, and that’s not just fine but the way it should be. you can hate something, i can love it, or vice versa, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. however, i have had times when i gave something a certain number rating, then looked back at the review, and thought that number and my praise – or lack there of – cannot go together. do you ever run into that?

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    That is a completely fair criticism. I have a tendency to overthink my scores, because the fact is, they are multi-purposed. When I’m first composing a review, I ballpark where I think I’ll have the score. Then I write the review and see what kind of case I come up with that serves as both an accurate assessment as to what my thoughts on the film are and consists of what I assume most people are looking for when they come to read a review like this.

    Then I re-read my review out loud a couple times and after editing the awkwardness out of it, I see if my original score lines up with what I said. If not, I adjust the score accordingly. But the score to me is flexible and not to be taken 100% seriously. After all; I’d be inclined to bump a film up or down a couple points if I think that it doesn’t necessarily quite measure up to another movie that I gave a certain score to. At the same time, I’m going by the loose guidelines of the scoring system that I myself wrote. So it’s tricky, for me at least. And I’ll admit – there are times where I’ll go back to a movie I reviewed and change the score a bit given a hindsight reflection upon it. I originally scored “Man of Steel” at a 9.1. A day later, I brought it down to an 8.7 – which I thought better quantified my thoughts. I haven’t changed the score yet because frankly that’d require writing a whole ‘nother review of it and I’d rather not depress myself to do such a thing, but if I had to guess, I’d probably bring the score of that movie all the way down to a 6.0. It really just doesn’t work, in spite of what it has going for it. And given the reaction to the film, I’m clearly not alone here.

    However, in the case of “Gravity”, when I say that I can’t praise the film highly enough, it’s more like me saying “there’s really not much more that I can say about this movie that I haven’t said already and this sentence is essentially to place an exclamation mark and underscore on what I have praised the film for. Where the film falls a little flat to me is in some of the dialogue and characterization of the film, which to me, could have been done a little better. Those criticisms are negligible to me personally, but if I’m going to mention them in a review, I really have no choice but to knock the film down some for it. And you really can’t escape the fact that this is just an average survival horror story but done spectacularly well. It’s new material, but I’m not sure it’s groundbreaking, putting aside the visual finesse that’s assured to set a new high standard.

    The other purpose scores serve is one that I didn’t really realize until recently, but they’re to remind me what I originally felt about a film and at the end of the year, help put some kinds of lists together. Now, I don’t just take the films and put them in the order of scores I apply and then just say good night. “Furious 6″ is a film that I might be tempted to list as one of the best films of the year (possibly) even if I might only score it as an 8.9. The same applies to “Gravity”.

    Long story short, I tend to overthink my scores so I don’t have to think very hard about the score. If this doesn’t make any sense to you…you’re probably sane.

  • rich

    i echo everything you said, which is why i asked. thanks for such a thorough introspection. i originally graded it as an A- but then lowered that to a B after i realized how much did not thrill me. so my B is right in line with your 8.9.

  • http://3guys1movie.com/ 3guys1movie

    Looks amazing…. spend the extra cash to see it in the best format you can find. I found the story a bit underwhelming sort of a poor mans Apollo 13 but it is still a fun 90 minutes with lots of tension.

  • http://3guys1movie.com/ 3guys1movie

    Did i see a pic of you wearing a Pats Uniform?

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    You did. I grew up in Massachusetts. I’m a Pats fan for life.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Yeah, the script probably could have been a little better. The acting on both sides made up for it; I even enjoyed hearing Ed Harris’ voice as Mission Control in the brief time we heard him.

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