Once in a great while a movie comes along that redefines what film is capable of, that almost rewrites the DNA of cinema itself. Film history is peppered with movies that come to be known as game changers: The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Godfather, Star Wars, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Avatar. Some are greater than others, but all marked a turning point in the way movies are made and seen. Gravity is one of those films. From a technical standpoint it is obscenely brilliant, using 3D and IMAX to their fullest potential. It would have been a stupendous achievement had it been only a technological exercise, but it also succeeds on an emotional and storytelling level.
The plot is deceptively simple. Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a first time astronaut on a mission to add components to the Hubble telescope. Among the crew is Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran shuttle commander on his last trip into space. During their EVA, a Russian satellite is destroyed, causing a chain reaction that sends a cloud of debris toward them at the speed of a bullet. The shuttle is destroyed and the rest of the crew killed, leaving Stone and Kowalski adrift in space.
The rest of the movie deals with their attempts to return to Earth, the details of which I will not reveal. The film clocks in at a lean 91 minutes, and not a moment is wasted. Director Alfonso Cuaron, along with his son and co-screenwriter Jonas, have crafted one of the most gut-wrenching spectacles in movie history; a film that is almost unbearably intense. I have long been skeptical of paying the upcharge fees to see a movie in 3D or large screen formats, but I can honestly say that the extra money is worth it. Gravity joins a short list of films that utilize the technology to truly enhance the filmgoing experience. Never has the idea of "You are there!" been so close to the truth. The effect is nearly overwhelming.
Cuaron and his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki craft bravura sequences reminiscent of the work they did in Children of Men, their most recent collaboration. That film contained extended sequences filmed in one shot where the edits were either disguised or nonexistent. In Gravity they up the ante, letting the camera flow naturally around the characters, in and out of space suits, from third person to first person, all without cutting away. (I counted only two edits in the first twenty minutes of the film.) This might have come off as pretentiously showy if not for the fact that every camera move perfectly serves the story. Never has the vastness of space been so perfectly, terrifyingly rendered on film. It reminds one of the space sequences in 2001 without Kubrick's cold detachment.
Bullock and Clooney are the only actors seen (In a magnificent homage/in-joke, Ed Harris plays the voice of Mission Control), and Bullock is on screen for almost the entire running time. Clooney, the only living actor who invites comparisons to Clark Gable, is reliably excellent as the gruff and charismatic mentor, but this is Bullock's movie. Her Ryan Stone is lost and afraid, concealing a deep well of personal tragedy. In a film with very little dialogue, Bullock conveys so much with expression and body language. It is a masterful performance, one that is going to earn her a second Oscar.
I mentioned that the plot is deceptively simple; it is the framework on which Cuaron hangs themes both primal and profound. The film explores coming to grips with grief and loss, and deciding to give up or do everything in your power to survive. Ryan Stone's heroic journey is both a literal battle for survival in outer space, and an internal struggle to which each and every one of us can relate, and thus it is a story about the entire human race. Gravity is one of the best movies ever made.