I’ll be honest: “Gravity” almost lost me. I won’t mention what happens, but if you’ve seen it, I’m guessing you’ll know where I’m talking about. Thankfully, co-writer/director Alfonso Cauron is too smart for such an absurd move, and the film gets a second wind as it goes toward its powerful conclusion.
It’s hard to know where to start with this film. I think a good place is with the technical aspects, which are beyond reproach. As for the 3D, this is one of the only films where I would say it’s of vital importance to watch it in 3D, on the biggest and best screen possible. As with “Hugo,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Avatar,” and “Life of Pi” before it, “Gravity” makes use of 3D in a way that post-conversion is just incapable of, and it goes beyond any use of the technology we’ve seen to date. Not only do we get remarkable depth of what we’re looking at visually, but the emotional impact knocks the wind out of you. Like Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, and James Cameron before him, Cauron (whose last film was the acclaimed 2006 sci-fi thriller, “Children of Men”) is pushing technology and storytelling in ways we rarely see in modern movies, and in a lot of ways, Cauron is moving past them. This is one of the few American films that can, legitimately, be compared to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the way it fuses technology, narrative, production values, and theme together into something we truly haven’t seen before. Regardless of what you think of the film as a whole, it’s hard to dispute that.
But there’s a lot more to the film than just it’s use of 3D. There’s not a lot to the story, though. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical doctor sent into space along with Captain Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and a shuttle team to place some new technology on the Hubble telescope. While making the modifications, they hear from Mission Control about a satellite explosion, with debris heading in their direction. Before they can get back into the shuttle, though, the debris hits, and Dr. Stone is thrown away from the shuttle, and Kowalski– using a jet pack –has to rescue her. However, with the shuttle in tatters, getting back to Earth requires patience, and some ingenuity.
Such simplicity in the narrative makes the wild acclaim it’s received seem odd, but Cauron, who wrote the script with his son, Jonas, has big ideas in store. The director of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and “A Little Princess” wants us to experience the anxiety of the situation up close and personal, using every tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal to put us in Stone and Kowalski’s place. This isn’t just about telling a story– it’s about making us experience this story with the characters, breaking down the boundaries of the typical moviegoing experience, and giving us the feeling of living in this situation ourselves; that’s why so many people, after seeing this film, say things like, “I’m never going into space.” Yes, it’s a funny thing to say after a fictional movie, but when that movie puts you through the ringer like this one does, you know where they’re coming from. Only IMAX documentaries, with the massive screen, and ambitious scope of their subjects, have accomplished something quite like this before– narrative cinema, even the best films, rarely reaches for this level of intimacy, regardless of how personal the film tries to be. The ease with which Cauron accomplishes this intimacy is almost a crime against other filmmakers who have failed over the years.
The film’s ultimate success lies with the performances, of course, and Bullock and Clooney both deliver exceptional ones, but the film’s startling technical craft is what sucks us in. Of particular note here is the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, who collaborated earlier with Cauron on “Children of Men,” which had two of the most startling single-take sequences in movie history. Those are still pretty great, but Lubezki and Cauron top themselves with “Gravity.” One of the many reasons I look forward to owning this film on Blu-Ray is so I can focus, and count how many cuts from one shot to another Cauron makes in this 91-minute film, and in all honesty, I’m guessing it’s no more than 20. I would seriously be surprised if it was more than that, and if it is, the cuts are so invisible that it’s like they didn’t happen. That creates the illusion of all of this happening in real time, which is not the case, although the immediacy the film moves with tricks our brains into thinking otherwise. But the images editing trickery are only part of Cauron’s arsenal in creating the claustrophobic excitement within “Gravity,” and it’s here where special mention must be given to the film’s excellent sound designers, and especially, composer Steven Price. Listening to his score apart from the film, it lacks bold themes and memorable motifs, but even separate from the film, the score puts us back in the moment, pulling us back into the emotions the film inspired, and believe me, it’s one Hell of a ride. This is what film music is supposed to do, and Price is following, brilliantly, in the footsteps of composers for films such as “Cloud Atlas,” “Hugo,” and other visionary films that transport us to completely new cinematic worlds.
What brings us back to Earth, though, are the actors, and Bullock and Clooney deliver strong work for Cauron. Clooney is basically doing his typical performance, almost playing himself, if you will, but that’s not a criticism, because his “typical” is pretty great, and it plays off of Bullock’s tremendous performance really well. This is her best work yet, and part of it is because of how great it blends what we consider “typical” for her with a sense of genuine risk and fear that makes her predicament all the more palpable. There are some truly emotional, and heart-wrenching, moments with her, including the scene I said at the beginning of this review that almost lost me. That’s as great a compliment I can give her, and the film– even when it looked like it might throw me out of the moment, it still had this strong center that held my attention throughout. And as a result, Bullock and Cauron made a masterpiece that advances the art form in ways we never saw coming.