People (read: critics and movie snobs) throw around the term “pure cinema” to mean an experience that could not exist in any other medium, using all the tools at its disposal to tell visual story. It usually applies to films that are best seen in a darkened auditorium on a massive screen with the flicker of the projector over your shoulder. While that saying has been used to describe many films, they may as well have invented it specifically for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, the butt-puckering movie of the year.
Cuaron had not directed a feature film since 2006’s Children of Men, a movie that effectively and impressively attempted several unbroken-take sequences of action and suspense, the final one following Clive Owen through a war zone in post-apocalyptic Britain. This seems to have been a trial run for Gravity, which manages very long, extended sequences of truly terrifying zero-G ricocheting in which the camera moves about freely, as untethered to anything as the characters.
The story is incredibly simple but important. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer in space for the first time, affixing a device she helped create to the Hubble Space Telescope. The captain of this mission is the veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who has been in space more than just about any human and will be hanging up his helmet after this job is done. Mere moments into the film, Houston gets word that a Russian satellite has been struck by a missile and is causing debris to pile up and begin orbiting the Earth at incredible speeds. Before too long, the Space Shuttle Explorer is hit and Stone finds herself spinning aimlessly further and further away. We’ve all seen the trailer. The rest of the movie has Kowalski and Stone trying to reach other space stations in order to get back to Earth.
As I said, this is a very simple premise, but one upon which Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki can hang their virtuoso camera techniques. I’m sure the way in which Bullock and Clooney are made to look like they’re flying around without gravity is extremely interesting and complicated, but I kind of don’t want to know any of it. To me, it was just a treat to watch, as the camera follows Bullock into space, flipping end over end, and slowly moves, without cutting, to her POV of the same movement before drifting back out to an omniscient, but still involved, view. I don’t think I have ever wanted to actually float above the Earth without anyone or anything nearby for support, and now I don’t have to wonder, because this movie showed me that in immense detail.
Everything about Gravity is meant to elicit a reaction from the audience, and that reaction is a complete tensing of the entire body. Being so close to everything at all times or, because the camera can truly go anywhere, to see something in the distance that our characters can’t see, but that will become incredibly important in mere seconds, makes us almost implicit in the chaos that ensues, thanks to fast-moving space junk. The sound design as well is full of the ever-increasing din followed by silence that a lot of movies like to use nowadays. Here, it’s handled quite well and, again, adds to the tension.
Both Bullock and Clooney give fantastic performances, and their interaction goes a long way to making us feel like this is really happening and that it’s really happening to these people. Bullock, especially, has to be an exposed nerve for the entire movie and make what she clearly can’t see or feel in real life completely true. We learn about both of these characters’ backstories and lives on Earth, and because both actors are already very likable, the audience immediately sides with them. That’s so important for something like this, which has no one else for the viewers to cling to.
If I have any complaints, it’s that the series of unfortunate events that befall Stone and Kowalski seem to continue just slightly beyond what is likely or practical, and for a movie that is SO closely tied to the relative reality of the situation, it feels momentarily like one crisis too many. If this were a lesser movie, you might see Bullock say, “Geez, what else could go wrong?” These are clearly simultaneously the luckiest and unluckiest people in the entire cosmos.
Having seen the movie in IMAX 3D for full effect, I would heartily recommend that for a viewing experience. You will feel the proper amounts of involvement with the surroundings, and you’ll feel the insignificance of a single person floating high above a planet of billions. The 3D is incredibly well handled and clearly a piece of design, as the camera will focus on a single bead of sweat as it floats off of Bullock’s face into the nothingness around her.
Warner Brothers is banking on the notion that people are still fascinated by space, excited by new filmmaking techniques, and have an inbred affection for two of Hollywood’s most charismatic and audience-drawing stars, and from where I was, I think they’ll succeed. Smart, realistic science fiction is coming back, and for that we need filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron, who sees what’s been done a billion times before and, like dreamers who look to the night sky, strives for something greater, newer, more different-er. I truly can’t wait to see what new frontier he’ll visit next time, and I hope it’s in less than 7 years.