Gravity is 2013’s most visually impressive feature. Right from the beginning, director Alfonso Cuarón seizes attention with jaw dropping views of the cosmos. Astronauts lazily float in space suits while the big glowing blue sphere of Earth looms in the background. Only the sounds of human breathing and electronic blips of communication can be heard. The spectacle is akin to actually floating in space along with our protagonist. There is a feeling of paralysis, of dizziness and weightlessness simply from the cinematography. It’s a dreamy experience. The production’s greatest triumph is that it puts you there, in the moment, and the effect is exhilarating. Let me be clear. This movie absolutely positively demands to be seen in a cinema on a huge screen, preferably on the largest IMAX available. 3D doesn’t hurt either. Yes, I have admittedly not cared for 3D technology in the past. Indeed 99% of the time it is a cash grab to jack up ticket prices to gouge the viewer for more money. Gravity is that rare exception that justifies the format.
The plot is simple. The Explorer shuttle is on a mission. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and scientist turned astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are on a spacewalk to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Elsewhere at that second Russia has deliberately destroyed one of its own defunct spy satellites. The resulting debris hurtles through the universe towards our pioneers. The shrapnel hits their shuttle disabling everything leaving Kowalski and Stone stranded. That’s the story.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney essentially portray versions of themselves. Clooney is a confident flirt who audibly plays country music inside his spacesuit. He is a raconteur regaling everyone with his stories. The visuals are so mind-blowing, occasionally I kind of wish he would stop telling anecdotes over the gorgeous scene. Bullock in contrast is sensitive and nervous – unsure of this foreign atmosphere. She’s disarming. We identify with her immediately because she is us. She is the story’s sentimental heart. With the effects vying for our interest, her performance is extraordinary because she captivates our concern. The eye popping displays become secondary when she’s speaking. We focus on her. It’s a remarkable achievement given the environment.
There are occasions where the director’s hand is evident. A single solitary tear cascades down Bullock’s cheek as a glistening globule and into the crowd watching with 3D glasses. At one point, Bullock strips off her astronaut suit revealing her amazingly toned body. She pauses in the fetal position like an embryo in the safe cocoon of her spaceship. The back-story she volunteers involving her daughter, comes across like a shortcut to emotional profundity. Although it doesn’t attempt the same philosophical depth, Gravity clearly owes a visual debt to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s in very good company – one of the few instances where space exploration is so tangible as to make us feel as if we’ve honestly been to the outer limits.
Alfonso Cuarón does a virtually flawless job in creating a you-are-there moment in space. Through cinematography, the actor’s movements and special effects, the genuine sensation of weightlessness is achieved better than in any film since, well since ever. Edits are few and far between. More prolonged camera takes do wonders at lulling the audience into a state of euphoria. There’s no sound in outer space, so even explosions are silent. There is a score however and the musical crescendos underscore major events. Sumptuous and beautiful, Gravity frequently makes you lose your breath due to the majesty that hypnotically unfolds before us. Space itself is the antagonist. It is a thrill ride with the human drama of survival at its center. Gravity is an awe inspiring picture and a potent reminder why it still remains preferable to see a film in a theater than on an iPod.