Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” is astounding achievement, an enthrallingly beautiful film that raises the watermark for big budget filmmaking and never sacrifices emotional resonance for computer generated bombast. Like “Mad Max” or “Jaws,” it should be seen on the widest screen possible or not at all. Its power wouldn’t properly translate to a 55 inch HD TV or worse yet, a 4 inch smart phone display. It truly is a cinematic event.
Following two astronauts on a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope that goes horrifically wrong, the film opens simply but effectively with a shot of Earth majestically hanging in space. Our planet looks stunning but seeing it from such a distant perspective evokes a kind of subtle anxiety. Before everything goes catastrophically wrong, we are made to understand that space is vast and immutable and the safety home is impossibly far away. The idea is further driven home in a scene where Sandra Bullock’s mildly depressed Dr. Ryan Stone absent-mindedly drops a screw, momentarily forgetting that once something is lost in space, it’s gone forever.
Not everything in “Gravity” is satisfyingly underplayed as that sequence. The film’s dialogue, written by Cuarón and his son Jonás, is painfully on the nose and often completely unnecessary. And as with his “Children of Men,” Cuarón underlines the importance of belief through religious iconography a bit too obviously. This is likely due to the film’s prolonged preproduction phase wherein a number of high-profile actors and actresses were attached to it only to bow out as scheduling conflicts arose. Without a clear idea of who his leads would be, Cuarón chose to make his script as generic and unambiguous as possible to ensure his themes would get through irrespective of his eventually cast. Such are the perils of $100 million filmmaking.
Thankfully Cuarón found a strong lead in Sandra Bullock, a good actress who has quietly built a respectable resume by turning down roles as some anonymous action hero’s screaming wife. And though she’s turned in quality work before, “Gravity” is Bullock’s finest hour. She has to not only be the human core of special effects driven film but is also the only character on-screen for the majority of its running time. A lesser performer would have been swallowed up by the film’s infinite vistas and sparse narrative (e.g. Suraj Sharma in “Life of Pi”) but Bullock keeps the focus on her struggle for survival against the desolate vacuum and there never comes a point when you forget that what are you watching is deeply human story.
Cuarón has already proven himself to be as supremely talented a cinematic stylist as Michael Bay, David Fincher and James Cameron but with “Gravity” he does his peers one better by using his visuals devices in service of telling his story as opposing to straining against it. By subtlety shifting from a third-person to a first-person perspective and filling the screen with verisimilitudic detail, Cuarón and his brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki slowly take the viewer from uninvolved observer to active participant. With every frozen tear drop and fogged up helmet, Cuarón makes his world a real place to the extent that when a bunch of satellite debris came rushing at Stone, I wasn’t worried about her being chopped in half, I was terrifying of shrapnel tearing into my own flesh.
The film's strength lies with Cuarón’s restraint. He doesn’t use 3D as a bludgeon; he uses it as a lazar. Coupled with some of year’s best sound design and an incredibly tense soundtrack by Steven Price, Cuarón used what has largely been a gimmick format to craft a bold new cinematic experience. In that way, “Gravity” is almost as exhilarating a landmark as it is film. It’s exciting to consider what will follow in its wake, to ponder what visionary filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Chris Nolan will take from the film and to see if its bravura visual storytelling will rouse some competitiveness in a sleeping titan like Steven Spielberg. More than that though “Gravity” restores the faith, that all of the cinematic art form’s masterpieces haven’t already been made and that it is still possible for a true artist to make an adult and rich film within the increasing commodified studio system.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.