Around this time of the year, when the big summer blockbuster blowout has subsided and the Oscar-bait fall season kicks in, at least one movie seemingly pops out of nowhere that manages to not only grab critical adoration, but also gain the wide acceptance of average moviegoers as well. In short, a film that is artsy and unique enough for the critics while retaining more than enough visceral thrills to satisfy a broader audience (Ex. Last year’s “Life of Pi”). In 2013, that movie has come forth in the form of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity”; a space thriller is not only an amazing technical achievement but also a riveting nail-biting thrill-ride.
In an astounding fifteen-minute single take, the “Children of Men” director puts the audience right in the middle of action. Not only does the movie open with the single most gorgeous shot of Earth since “Tree of Life” (while the space shuttle Explorer gradually floats to the foreground), but delights with great razor-sharp banter between the two main leads, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Meanwhile, the plot of “Gravity” could almost be summed up as being essentially one-long action sequence as it follows the plights of Bio-medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) after they encounter deadly space debris from a blown-up satellite during a routine space-walk. With their ship damaged beyond repair, the two stars must satellite-hop in order to get back to Earth while facing the dangers of limited oxygen and accidentally drifting in space forever.
One of the film’s greatest accomplishments is giving an ultra-realistic portrayal of the soundless and dangerous vacuum of space that is most reminiscent of classics such as “2001 A Space Odyssey”. Because of this, the laws of physics are a constant source of suspense as our leads struggle with momentum while reaching for stable grips. Combine this with Emmanuel Lubezki’s fantastic cinematography that really pulls out all the stops in the camera-technique book, “Gravity” gravitates the audiences to the edge of their seats and rarely lets up with the tension.
While the casting of the two leads comes off as a bit calculated; they nevertheless give solid performances all around. Clooney is needless to say very charming playing a calm and cool as ice astronaut (essentially himself but IN SPACE), while Bullock gives a rare straightforward serious turn as a terrified but strong scientist trying to not only overcome a terrible situation but also her tragic past. Bullock’s serious performances tend to be hit (The Blind Side) or miss (Premonition) but in “Gravity” she does a good job in carrying the film considering she is mostly talking to herself or conveying emotions through her eyes or breathing patterns.
The always-intense narrative and technical achievement more than make this flick a must-see, but there do exist flaws. The narrative is very sentimental and heavy-handed with its metaphors of “rebirth through tragedy”. Cuaron also does not miss a chance to flash religious objects such as a picture of Jesus or a statue of the Buddha (tacking on religious symbolism does not automatically make a story deep). Plus, there is a bit of magical realism in one key scene that almost endangers the ultra-realistic tone that the film.
If “Gravity” needs be seen in any format, it should be on the big-screen and the 3D is well worth the ticket price. It is refreshingly majestic and a feast for the eyes while also containing smart popcorn thrills to boast.