After a catastrophic event leaves the Explorer space shuttle crippled and its crew stranded in orbit above Earth, its two surviving astronauts, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) attempt a last ditch effort to reach a local space station that is quickly falling into Earth's atmosphere while trying to outrun a devastating debris field hot on their tale before they both run out of oxygen and time.
Fans of Alfonso Cuaron's previous work, such as Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, should already be well accustomed to the director's penchant for pushing the boundaries of what is considered possible or impossible to film. Always coming up with new and imaginative ways to frame his shots, usually in very elaborate long camera movements, his films are always a showpiece for his technical prowess behind the camera.
But it's his ability to never let his technical ambitions overtake the narrative that ultimately makes his films truly shine like no other. At the center of all the chaotic action, amazing sound and visual design, there are real human characters in the mix with real and imminent danger always over the horizon threatening their lives. Gravity is no different, not once during the film's very brief 90 minute runtime do we ever feel as though we are just watching some sort of brilliant tech demo.
We are given very little time to become invested in the journey of astronauts Kowalski and Stone at the outset. After an awe inspiring opening shot of Earth where all sound is cut out and all sense of Earthbound physics are tossed away for the reality of life in space, the film kicks into overdrive and aside from a few character moments liberally sprinkled about here and there, it never slows down until the moment those end credits begin to roll.
Cuaron uses those few moments of downtime to give us those little nuggets that reminds us that we aren't just watching special effects, we are watching two people fighting for survival with little chance of success at every turn. That is key, that we begin to care about what happens to them and in turn making every single encounter they have a tension filled spectacle that will have you gripping your armrests like your life depended on it. Through a number of different camera perspectives, Cuaron puts us right there with them in the thick of it and it is unlike anything you have ever seen or experienced before and it is a tremendous achievement on his part.
You can't discount the performances of Bullock and Clooney either, two actors that have as many strengths as they do weaknesses when it comes to their particular brand of acting styles. If for whatever reason, their presence in this film is a major detractor for you, don't let that keep you from seeing one of the most emotionally gripping film events of the year. Once the film begins, who is in those space suits becomes less and less of an issue with each passing minute as the drama and gorgeous visuals engage all your senses to the point of not even caring about whatever petty squabbles you may have with either actor.
Bullock in particular has been getting accolades all over the internet and in all sorts of publications for her portrayal of this rookie astronaut who is thrown into the furnace her first trip out, and rightfully so. She may have won her Oscar for The Blind Side, but this is the performance that should have been netted her that statue, not some emotionally manipulative feel-good-movie/tear-jerker. The massive amount of training she likely went through for the part not withstanding, her performance here is what essentially makes all those spectacular effects matter.
Speaking of those effects, yes, they are every bit as impressive as you have been led to believe. It's not just effects for things blowing up or crumbling into thousands of little pieces (which happens in spectacular fashion by the way). The most impressive bit of effects work in the film is likely something that you won't even give a second thought to, which is the amazing attention to detail and the flawless depiction of the weightlessness for the actors.
Never before has zero gravity felt and looked this convincing (Apollo 13 was the previous benchmark). Whether it is George Clooney floating around the space shuttle in a thruster pack or watching as Sandra Bullock curls up into a floating fetal position inside an airlock, there is never a moment where you won't believe anything less than this thing must have actually been filmed in space (which it wasn't of course, but you get the point).
Likewise, another key element to creating the reality that the actors are in fact floating in space miles above Earth's atmosphere is the impeccable sound design for the film. Too many times filmmakers feel the need to add loud whooshes or huge bangs whenever things go crazy or otherwise explode in a grand fashion. That works fine for anything on Earth itself, but in space there is no sound and thus we would never hear those whooshes and/or huge bangs.
For a long time now we have forgiven this large oversight because let's face it, sound effects are cool (can you imagine the attack on the Death Star without the sounds of laser blasts or explosions? Me neither). But there is something to be said for silence, especially with how much it elevates the many action oriented sequences found in Gravity. By taking out the sound, it adds a level of tension that is very unnerving and makes many of the scenes with Bullock and Clooney trying to survive everything being thrown at them that much more of an intense and harrowing experience.
So, the acting is top notch, the effects are beyond anything you have ever seen before and the sound (or lack there of) is remarkably effective when it comes to building tension. Is there anything wrong with the film? Unfortunately there are plenty of things to nitpick, such as how likely it is that a rookie like Bullock's character would be able to perform many of the tasks she does in the way she does them despite her training. Also, the level of destruction that happens throughout the film and the fact that it always seems to happen at precisely the right time seems a little too convenient and very unlikely.
There is very little to complain about the film though. It's technical achievements and the stellar performances by both Bullock and Clooney make this the must-see movie experience of the year. It's lean on story, but its many successes far outweigh any possible faults you may find with it. If you do plan on seeing it (which you should) make sure to check it out in 3D and on the largest screen with the best sound you can, it's worth the extra effort.
Any fears of the film being nothing more than a special effects demo or that the actors would distract from the experience are completely valid, however in this case they are also completely unfounded. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is a film that should be celebrated for the pure cinematic experience that it is. It's exciting filmmaking at its most exhilarating and is one of the best films released this year.