Gravity, the new film by Alfonso Cuarón that will be hitting theaters nationwide on October 4th, is an achievement of visual storytelling that will not be approached or surpassed anytime in the near future. A minimalist cast of Sandra Bullock, who plays space shuttle mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone, and George Clooney, flight commander, are effectively the only characters in the 90 minute space drama, and both carry the weight and focus with ease.
No other movie captures the feeling of vastness and danger of space as strongly as Gravity does. The film opens with a repair mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in an opening 15minute sequence captured in a single take. During the spacewalk, Huston radios that there’s been an accident when Russia has tried to down one of it’s failing satellites and has caused a Kessler syndrome effect where debris from the satellite has impacted other orbiting satellites causing more flying shrapnel until it’s now on it’s way towards the shuttle (and the International Space Station).
There have been a number of drama-in-orbit movies over the years, but this is the first that’s realized that there’s plenty of drama to be had with the existing technology that we have on had without having to make up futuristic gizmos, and also the first to show this level of beauty (and danger) of space.
The motion of the camera in tandem with truly cutting edge CGI has been able to replicate zero-g environments in a way that best way to describe the impact was similar to when I (at a very young age) first saw the shuttle to the station sequence in 2001. Yes, zero-g has been done innumerable times; just not this elegantly.
Moments where the camera finds a way to move from space, into the helmet to look at the actor, pivots around to see the HUD in the helmet, and then back out again, all in one stunningly clean motion is the kind of cinema magic that will amaze audiences.
As the debris tear into the shuttle all around them, the impetus of the movie is made clear – survive and find a way back to earth. Much has been made about studio pressures on the Alfonso to cast the role of Ryan as a male (though it’d been written as a female), and it’s wonderful that he stuck to his guns and left it as written. Bullock is amazing in the role and carries it superbly. There’s not a lot of room in the film’s tight running time to delve into expansive character development or backstory, so there’s only a few moments of exposition – but there’s times where you don’t need to sit and lecture to the audience about how a character got to where they are now. What’s important is the job at hand, and that’s what the story sticks to.
It’s a roller coaster that started with the opening moments of the first shot and goes until the very end, with only a few moments to breathe in between. This is one space movie that again has the rare advantage of a sound design that’s brave enough to operate without sound when appropriate. The utter silence of space speaks volumes – and helps to add to the anxiety, because we know it’s so very alien of an environment for humans. We always have ambient sounds around us. In space, there’s just nothing, and all that empty can be every bit (or more) crushing than any buried-alive-in-a-coffin scene. Even when they are working with power tools, the sound is only that which they’d hear from the vibrations through the suits.
James Cameron said about Gravity, “I was stunned, absolutely floored,” he says. “I think it’s the best space photography ever done, I think it’s the best space film ever done.” Every person has their own movies that speak to them for their own tastes, but for contemporary/realistic space movies, he’s not far off the mark.
In the end, it’s a 90 minute roller coaster ride that will catch you up and not put you back down again until the screen fades to black and the credits roll.
One thing that should be said is that this is a movie that, if it speaks to you, will have you clinging to anything in the silence. If there are idiots in the theater that decide to chatter/text/place calls in that moment, it will impact the spell that it casts. This is one of those movies that really will be something that you won’t forget when shared with an audience that respects (and understands) the uniqueness of the experience that they’re getting to be a part of.