The visceral, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride of 2013 is director Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. The winner of the Best Director Oscar of 2013. This film has been constantly described by this reviewer to people on earthbound streets as a Hitchcock film in outer space. A scenario where Murphy's Law is unbreakable. A world where claustrophobia can take place in the most expansive environment ever known. Anything can happen in an environment where there is no causal escape. Seeing this in 3D in an IMAX theater is the greatest way this film can be viewed. The experience of it is so mind-bogglingly beautiful and simultaneously terrifying that you spend most of your waking hours afterward wondering how much planning went into all this and how it could possibly scare everyone away from commercial space travel.
The film is carried by generally only two actors: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Their characters spend most of the story making small talk and elaborating on appropriate survival procedures when the chaos begins to start. To get some of the unimportant criticisms of this film out of the way first, it is arguable that these characters are nowhere as important as outer space itself, which projects itself as a gigantic looming spectre throughout the entire story. The horror of losing control in THE space is what Gravity is all about and nothing more. Like a Hitchcock film (Lifeboat, Rope, Rear Window), the inescapable location is the point of the conflict. There is also an odd logistical scenario as to how a doctor is working on satellite tech issues, but as this is a Spanish-produced film (the Cuarons have been known to struggle with their English)—then this may be just a simple 'lost in translation.' Now to talk about the real towering achievement: the amazing blend of cinematography and visual effects. As much as some people dislike special effects-laden films, they have always been popular since the beginning: A Trip to the Moon, The Thief of Bagdad, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix... these are all films that have to be seen for their twisting of a human being's imagination. We need these type of films in order to awaken a person's mind and widen their perspectives; bending them out of their smaller, limited worlds. The dangers of “forward momentum” that famed scientist Neil Degrasse Tyson has humorously and rightly pointed out is the terror of the story.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney's astronauts find themselves pummeled by high-speed debris that is destroying their space station and knocking them into uncoordinated directions. A tumbling astronaut whose only sense of direction is the location of the planet Earth in their peripheral is an absolutely horrifying thought. Here, director Cuaron makes that thought come to faint-worthy reality. The astronauts spend most their time trying to angle themselves into the right directions and travel as carefully as possible to alternate space stations and shuttles. However, a space station does not guarantee absolute safety in this situation. The debris is still moving at lethal speeds in each passing orbit and Bullock's character needs to keep moving in order to survive. Like any good thriller, the trick is in the pacing. Keep the film feeling suspenseful and dangerous and you've got a nail biter. One of the only times the film breaks from its sense of doom is a dream sequence where Bullock's character, in the process of nearly giving up, finds her answers in a hallucination. The sequence is very similar to pretty much anything seen in an Andrei Tarkovsky film (Solaris, Stalker) where characters start discovering the truth through odd daydreams. Can our amateur heroine astronaut discover the right answers in time to survive? Or will she buckle under her own inexperience?
The scope of Gravity must be rightly credited toward Visual Effects Supervisor Tim Webber and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki. The idea of this entire film would have not been possible if it were not for these two men. Cuaron's Orson Welles-inspired shots with out any cuts (a seamless series of shots that never stop) is exactly what makes Gravity so gorgeously horrifying. Nothing seems to stop in the entire film as if you are at the mercy of a breakneck orbit. In order to achieve that, you need the momentum of minds moving just as carefully as the astronauts caught up in the experience.