Life in space is impossible. At least how we humans know it. There’s nothing of what’s essential to human life indigenous to space. In essence, Gravity is a disaster movie but on a simultaneously smaller and larger scale. As a handful of astronauts get caught in a debris field that leaves them stranded in space. It’s then up to Dr. Ryan Stone, played with vigor by Sandra Bullock, to overcome the several challenges that stand in the way of getting back home.
Alfonso Cuarón’s long-awaited return to film is a cinematic experience unlike any other, a big budget hard sci-fi thrill ride driven by an auteur. His hugely ambitious cinematic techniques and technology result in a film that’s beautiful, viscerally terrifying and unique. We may have seen some of the things here done before, but never like this.
The film only features two on-screen performers. Sandra Bullock, who’s visible for virtually the entire run-time, needs to shoulder a whole lot as Cuarón puts her through the ringer with a slow death, drifting in space hanging perilously over her head the entire time. Early on the need for talking, in attempts to ensure radio connectivity, is established giving Bullock a very logical reason to continue speaking, even when she’s alone. Her Dr. Stone is very much an everyman, an audience surrogate for the viewer to sink into and sympathize with, fearing for her fate as she struggles 600 kilometers above the Earth. It’s a strong performance, embodying the human will to survive and will likely be in the mix come award season.
George Clooney very much plays Matt Kowalski as George Clooney, with his charm and wit firmly in place, coming in handy to try and defuse the tension when the two are drifting in space. Humor is of course a good a way as any to deal with difficult situations, which their predicament qualifies as. Both performances are very human and relatable, important traits to place you in the middle of the action. We get only bits and pieces of their backstories, revealed organically through dialogue, but it’s more than enough to latch on to and invest in leading to you constantly fearing for their lives.
The film opens with a sixteen minute unbroken shot, accomplished with specialized rigs and Emmanuel Lubezki‘s keen sense for framing, which sets the stage for the rhythm of the film that follows. Though shots aren’t always as long in the following seventy four minutes, the film is still sparsely edited, with the average length of a shot probably settling in at around five minutes. What this accomplishes is to draw you in completely. The long takes give off a sense of immediacy and urgency, a key element in the perfect construction of tension. And what tension. Following a short and serene introduction things kick into high gear and stay there, emotionally and physically, for the remainder of the film.
Visually the film is simply stunning. The endless, engulfing blackness of space is ever-present. The juxtaposition of danger and beauty is astounding, delivering a simmering balance of breathtaking sequences and moments of relief. Proceedings feel immensely real, the danger is palpable not the least due to great use of both first person and 3D. The first person shots are often frantic and disorienting in the best way possible while the 3D will have you flinching as debris shoots by. It’s a case of the much maligned format actually, truly adding to the cinematic experience.
Sound design is equally fantastic. There’s something so terrifying about seeing everything torn to pieces with nary a sound outside of the astronauts panicked shouts and Steven Price’s thumping score, which is by no means constantly present as it frequently drops out. The low, bassy thumps convey well the emptiness of the void that threatens to envelop our protagonist at any moment. The film simply has everything; the look, feel and sound to place you in orbit of our little globe.
When the camera drifts, as it so often does, from Bullock to give us a spectacular view of the Earth, complete with aurora borealis, we get the sense that Cuarón is trying to say, through the situation the protagonist is in, that the world is absolutely beautiful but there are horrible things in it. It’s up to us to overcome them. Cuarón trades the immense philosophical ambition of Children of Men for the aforementioned ambitious cinematic filmmaking, but there’s still thematic depth to the survivalist tale. Dr. Stone has to come to terms with her own mortality as the cold depths of space do give plenty of opportunities to do so. It goes into the power of choosing to live when the odds are opposed to you.
The film also evokes much maternal imagery; the tether between Stone and Kowalski being a surrogate for the umbilical cord and her collapsing into a fetal position as she reaches momentary safety after being disconnected from Kowalski being clearly symbolic. As a whole the film can be seen as a rebirth for her, stronger and more defined by her orbital experience.
Final Verdict: With a seven-year gap since Children of Men and with the ambition at hand, a lot of expectation was riding on Gravity. The film is well worth the wait and then some, with Alfonso Cuarón cementing his status as one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers. Fear, excitement, awe and triumph are all to be found in a unique film that’s filled to the brim and over with quality. A masterpiece.