"I hate space."
Spoken at right about the halfway point in Alfonso Cuaron's newest film Gravity, that line provides a simple yet bracingly hilarious respite from the chaos the audience has been surviving alongside the film's characters. It's not an exaggeration to say that Gravity is one of the most unbearably intense films you will ever see, but in the best way imaginable. It's the kind of film that visual effects are made for, and when used this vividly and realistically, you can begin to understand how badly misused they are by lesser filmmakers in virtually every major studio release these days.
On a routine mission (is there any other kind to start a space tragedy) to repair a malfunctioning satellite, scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and a third astronaut are informed that some debris from a recently destroyed Russian satellite will intersect with their current position. When the debris reaches them, their companion is instantly killed and Ryan is sent hurling into space. Luckily Kowalski is equipped with a booster powered jetpack and is able to reach her before she floats into the abyss.
Kowalski tethers himself to Stone, and the two set off for a nearby Russian space station. The station is equipped with an escape pod that can power them over to a nearby Chinese station that has a pod suitable for re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. They're on a strict deadline however since, not only are they running out of oxygen, they must also deal with the fact that the debris which destroyed their shuttle is in orbit and will circle back around in roughly ninety minutes. It's a race against time as the two fight for survival in the harshest environment imaginable.
To say any more about the film would be to give too much away, and thankfully the film's advertising campaign has focused almost exclusively on events that occur in the first act. Gravity is unlike any film you've seen before, and I mean that in the best way imaginable. A lot of comparisons are being bandied about between this film and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and apart from several visual nods to Kubrick's masterpiece, this film is completely different in almost every way apart from the outer space setting. 2001 dealt with huge questions like the origin of life and the evolution of humans, whereas Gravity is a down and dirty thrill ride that keeps you breathless and on the edge of your seat for its entire running time. It doesn't have time to consider the big questions like "what does it all mean," it just keeps propelling forward on sheer adrenaline.
And that is why it is a hugely successful film. Apart from a brief interlude late in the second act, Gravity doesn't stop for even a moment to catch its breath, forcing the audience to do the same. Where a lesser filmmaker would have bogged the film down with unnecessary flashbacks or tangential conversations, Cuaron presents us with a lean film completely devoid of such frivolity. None of this is to say that the film is without emotion or character development, it's just all done in such a streamlined way that you never lose focus on the characters' fight to stay alive.
As for the technical elements of the film, they are top notch in every way. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's constantly orbiting camerawork helps to capture both the beauty of Earth from a distance and the terrifying void of deep space behind the characters. Complemented by an amazing score by Steven Price, the film is a gorgeous combination of picture and sound. And beyond the score, the film's sound design is flat-out amazing, never succumbing to the temptation to give us sound that couldn't exist in the vacuum of space, relying instead on the actor's breathing to do the job of conveying constant peril.
As for the performances, they are as good as you would expect from two veterans like Bullock and Clooney and then some. Clooney is the kind of actor that can convey a complete character with just a few lines of dialogue, and uses the first handful of lines he speaks to let you know instantly who this guy is. But this is Bullock's show all the way, and she makes the most of that opportunity. You feel her anguish, fear and anxiety, and she makes it palpable. As much as the film is a truly visual feast, it wouldn't be any good if the lead actress wasn't so fantastic, and she really sells the film through her performance, and the one speech of any substance that she has late in the film is as devastating and full of emotion as you want it to be, and she sells it completely.
I must also applaud Cuaron and his son Jonas for their screenplay. The dialogue is used sparingly and always in service of either driving the story or expanding on a character, and it's never cheesy or overwrought. The film doesn't have an ounce of fat on it, and I imagine that a good deal of the credit for that has to do with it being such a solid screenplay. The film could have had a James Cameron-esque screenplay full of overly obvious dialogue and story beats and still been entertaining, but a lean script like this helps to elevate the entire endeavor and make it that much better overall.
I truly cannot say enough good things about Gravity, other than to say that it is a film that virtually everyone can enjoy. I would wholeheartedly recommend seeing it on the largest screen possible, such as IMAX, but at the very least I think it's essential to see in 3D. The film will work well in 2D because it's just that good, but the 3D presentation adds an immediacy that a normal 2D viewing would not have, particularly for the handful of shots where the camera drift inside Bullock's helmet and you see things from her perspective. It's thrilling, exhausting, enervating, but more than anything else immensely entertaining. Gravity is the real deal, and I truly don't get to say that often enough.
GO Rating: 4.5/5
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]