How do you even begin to put an experience like “Gravity” into words? All at once it’s a meditation on the human spirit, the fear of death, the difficulty in coping with tragedy, and finding the will to soldier on, all wrapped up in a 90-minute, edge-of-your-seat spectacle. It’s an emotional punch that’s very rare in cinema nowadays. Whereas some filmmakers are content with flat characters and banal storylines, Alfonso Cuaron takes things to the next level, not only technologically, but also through complex themes, fully-formed characters, and a gripping narrative.
One of the amazing things about Cuaron’s film, and believe me, there are many, is the fact that the narrative is so deceptively simple. Two astronauts, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), are on a spacewalk to install a system on the Hubble Telescope. They are suddenly informed that there is a massive amount of debris heading their way, giving them very little time to prepare for the impact. The telescope is destroyed, sending Ryan hurtling out into space. Using a jetpack, Matt is able to grab hold of Ryan and tether the two of them together. With power in the jetpack running low and Ryan’s oxygen at a critical level, the two must quickly come up with a plan to save their lives.
The story may be simple, but it’s here where Cuaron and his co-writer/son Jonas Cuaron weave in the themes that make “Gravity” an emotional rollercoaster. From the very opening shot, it is an awe-inspiring film to look at as the camera drifts around the ant-like forms against the backdrop of endless space and the enormous Earth. Already we find ourselves being drawn into the story on a purely visual level, but as disaster strikes, our attachment to the characters rises dramatically, and that’s from only having spent a few minutes with them.
Matt’s the kind of guy who’s done this a million times, shown clearly through his relaxed demeanor and the fact that mission control has heard just about every story he’s had to offer many times. He’s dead serious about the mission, but jokes about how he’s very close to breaking the record time for spacewalking. He exerts the exact kind of professional, down-to-Earth attitude that Ryan needs, what with her being new to the experience. Matt’s focus comes in handy even more when they find themselves in a deadly predicament fighting for their lives.
As the film plays on, you learn more about Ryan and a certain tragedy she went through. It may seem like an odd thing to divulge while she and Matt are trying to save themselves, but in a way, it keeps her calm as they do what they need to do. It also sets the stage for many of the events later in the film that begin to delve deeper into how she deals with the tragedy, or perhaps how it’s impossible to deal with it. In a sense, it becomes a struggle between dealing with the past, the immediacy of the present crisis, and trying to find the point of moving on into the future. Doesn’t seem like such a simple tale now, does it?
Now let’s delve deeper into the visual aspects of the film. This is, without a doubt, one of the most technically impressive films since Kubrick’s masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Cuaron creates the most realistic space setting ever put on film, so much so that you’ll likely be gasping for breath right along with Ryan. Everything from the scarce use of sound (it’s not carried in space, as other big budget sci-fi actioners would have you believe) to the seamless weightless effect contributes to the haunting, lonely atmosphere. Cuaron’s realism goes a long way towards giving you a “you are there” feeling, which makes it all the easier to get caught up in the adventure. Cinematic technology has come a long way, with “Gravity” being proof positive of the amazing things that can be accomplished nowadays.
Also deserving of much credit is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whom you may recall was robbed of his Oscar a couple of years ago for his stunning work on Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” The opening shot itself is a work of genius. In this seemingly one-take shot, the camera floats around the entire scene, once again contributing to that feeling of actually being there with the astronauts. His camera glides along effortlessly, giving us a feel for the vast emptiness of the surroundings, while maintaining the intimacy with the characters. With a sixth Oscar nomination just about guaranteed, will this finally be the one he gets recognized for?
The film is also a rarity in that it depends on a very small cast to tell this emotionally-gripping and thrilling tale, so there’s quite a lot riding on the shoulders of Bullock and Clooney. Clooney is just the kind of guy you can see exerting the attitude I mentioned earlier. He brings the confidence, the focus, and the level of professionalism that Matt requires to make him a believable astronaut with tons of experience. However, the real showstopper here is Bullock. She pours every ounce of emotion she has into this character and is the main reason the film has as much of an impact as it does. I would not be surprised in the least if she were to win her second Oscar for this heart-wrenching performance.
Cuaron and his team have crafted a masterpiece that is so much more than it seems. It’s not every day a science fiction film comes along that has the ability to touch an audience and get them this invested in its story. All the pieces come together to form one of the most unforgettable movie-going experiences of recent memory. It’s easily the best film of the year so far, and could very well be “the one.” It’s a space odyssey not to be missed. 4/4 stars.
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