It’s been exactly a month since I watched Alfonso Cuarón’s mesmerizing thrill-a-second space-set thriller Gravity. I didn’t review the film when it came out because I was on a much-needed vacation when Warner Brothers scheduled all its press screenings. Once I caught up with it though, I decided a review of the film could wait – especially since I still had to compose reviews of films like Prisoners, Don Jon, Rush and Captain Phillips. It was a mistake. Time does things with your memory and attempting to review a film a month after your only watch can be quite daunting – especially when it comes down to details. If you’re reading this and you still haven’t seen the movie, consider this a warning that you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. The following is my very belated review.
Gravity is a transporting experience; an exquisitely-crafted, eye-popping thrill ride that grabs you by the gut at the start of its 90 minute runtime and never lets go. Nothing short of a landmark achievement in filmmaking, Alfonso Cuarón film left me speechless, in awe of its audacity and grinning like a 10-year-kid. It’s the ultimate theme park ride – easily the most immersive theatrical experience since James Cameron’s 3-D box office behemoth Avatar – and quite possibly, the most realistic-seeming depiction of space travel ever made.
Prefaced with an ominous title card that warns us that life in space is impossible, Cuarón’s dazzling thriller opens with a bravura 13-minute opening shot that sets the pace and tone of everything to follow. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are astronauts floating hundreds of miles over the surface of the Earth. When we meet them, they’re in the middle of a space walk, making repairs to the Hubble telescope. Kowalski, a veteran on his last mission, is a wise-cracker – cool, collected and here to enjoy the ride. Stone, on the other hand, is a ball of nervous energy. A medical engineer by trade, this mission is her first in space. She’s terrified, but Kowalski is there to guide her.
But no guidance can prepare them for what happens next. After a Russian spy satellite is blown up, the orbital debris created from the destruction heads straight for them and their shuttle at a rate 10 times faster than a speeding bullet. When the shuttle is obliterated, Kowalski and Stone are stranded in space, with limited oxygen, no way to get back home, and zero communication with Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris in a clever homage to Apollo 13). Left only with Kowalski’s space jet pack and a rope to tie them together as tools for survival, the duo decide to make a perilous journey to the Internal Space Station, located on an orbit far removed from their current location.
Gravity is writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s first film since his 2006 magnum opus Children of Men. Compared to that thematically-rich and spiritual tale which dealt with a futuristic war-stricken society on the brink of extinction, Gravity is a very straight-forward and simplistic work. It’s a lean, 90-minute thrill-a-second survival drama with a screenplay (by Cuarón and son Jonás) that, for the most part, avoids getting entangled in existential themes.
But the script’s deceptive simplicity is also the key reason why it works. More than anything, this is a high-octane suspense thriller and judged on that level alone, Cuarón’s work is marvelous. His acute understanding of the crafts as well as the management of his sterling team – be it visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, composer Steven Price and co-editor Mark Sanger –is that of a mensch. If Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También and even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban hadn’t proved it previously, this should silence all doubts that he is one of cinema’s best.
Keen casting is often the difference between greatness and mediocrity. In the case of a film like Gravity, it’s everything. Bullock, who is one of Hollywood’s most likeable (and bankable) stars has had challenging roles in the past but nothing in her previous work (including her Oscar-winning performance in The Blind Side) tops the emotional and physically strenuous demands of her role here. For a bulk of Gravity, Bullock is the only person on-screen. This is her story, more so than Clooney’s, and when Cuarón shoots things from her perspective, we know that she’s our surrogate. A bulk of the film is devoted to Stone struggling with figuring her way out of one catastrophic problem after the next, and Bullock’s wrenching career-topping work, which has her reaching deep down, makes us invested in her survival.
It would be unforgivable if I ended this review without mentioning the tremendous work of the below-the-line team. Steven Price’s pulsating score could double as a third character in the film, as could the Emmanuel Lubezki fluid cinematography. The veteran Mexican cinematographer, who has worked with Cuarón on most of his films, as well as Terrence Malick’s last three films, is in my mind, the best working D.P. in Hollywood today. His breathtaking work here, which he crafted in conjunction with visual effects supervisor Tim Webber and production designer Andy Nicholson, might be his crowning achievement, not only because of how it advances the science of cinematography, but also because it illustrates that the expertise of a cinematographer is still vital in the digital age where everything from lighting to camera angles can be adjusted with a click of a mouse. Gravity may be a technological wonder but its impact is the combination of many factors – that of master craftsmen, assured performers, a studio willing to take the risk, a good script, and above all, the pioneering leadership of a visionary.