Director Alfonso Cuaron spent over four and a half years developing his latest film, Gravity. The tale of two stranded astronauts had to invent technology to fully realize Cuaron’s zero gravity vision, carefully programming precise camera movements into a room full of LED flat screens to orient the harnessed actors and light them properly. It could have gone stupendously wrong in so many ways. Instead it’s the biggest leap forward in movie technology since 2009’s Avatar and surely one of the best science fiction films since 2006’s Children of Men, Cuaron’s last movie. It is a thrilling, awe-inspiring, astonishing, illuminating, and altogether brilliant film. Films like Gravity are the reason we go to the movies.
High above planet Earth, astronauts Mike Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are repairing the Hubble telescope when a field of satellite debris crashes into their shuttle. Both of the astronauts are adrift in space and have to maneuver to the safety of a space station. The debris storm circling the Earth is gathering size and force, and these two are running out of oxygen and safe places to hide.
Gravity is one of those movies that you feel like ordinary English adjectives do it a disservice. I can refer to it and visually resplendent, awe-inspiring, and borderline transcendent, but my words will ultimately prove fruitless, because the experience of Gravity is beyond description. This is the reason we go to the movies, to be amazed, to feel something new, and Cuaron has taken the next great leap forward in technical moviemaking while also retaining the artistic soul of an engaging thriller. You could simply view Gravity as a visual feast and be content, or you could view it as a harrowing survival thriller and be content, or you could view it as Cuaron’s spiritual exploration on the perseverance of life against all odds (more on this later). Any way you shake it, it’s hard to come away from Gravity being disappointed, though I know with every lofty word of praise I inject that the bar is set even higher in audience expectations.
From a visual standpoint, Cuaron has crafted a truly immersive film going experience that puts you in the center of the action. The signature long takes amaze just as much as the visuals, both of which give you the sensation of what it’s like to be in space, weightless, free-floating, and oh so vulnerable at a moment’s notice. It’s been almost 45 years since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 showed the visual poetry of zero-gravity acrobatics, and the sheer visual still has plenty of potency left. But coupled with Cuaron’s blinkless long takes, the illusion is rarely broken, especially in the first twenty minutes, which establishes the stakes and the reality of survival in space. Ignoring all aspects of the plot and acting, you could sit through the entirety of Gravity and find it a sumptuous, invigorating experience purely from the cutting edge special effects. There is a real sense of majesty to the views from space, overlooking our blue orb, the vastness of it all. It would be overwhelmingly beautiful if it weren’t also simultaneously terrifying. Space, much like nature itself, has an indifferent cruelty to it, and Cuaron does an exceptional job of presenting both the grandeur and the inherent dangers of space.
My nerves were racked throughout those tense 90 minutes of intense orbital activity. As a thriller, Gravity is a very well constructed setup with pristine execution. Each problem is dealt with in the immediacy, the unique particular of space allowing us a new perspective on the survival/disaster thriller model. First she has to stop floating. Then she has to get more oxygen. Then she has to get to a more safe location. Then she has to get back home. It may sound like not enough little plot pit stops but each one is pivotal and a remote respite from jeopardy. The wholeness of space is so complete that it feels like the odds are forever stacked against Stone. I was breathless through many of the suspense sequences, nervously tapping my feet, urging the onscreen characters onward. Cuaron and his son, co-writer Jonas, make it clear early the steps of her journey, and each feel like a natural result of the dire changing circumstances. The accumulative debris is given a 90-minute countdown for return, so we’re always wary that Stone will be caught back in the orbiting mass of projectiles. The sense of peril is kept on high and doesn’t relent, leaving you feeling like every nerve is spent by the conclusion. It’s a top-notch thriller that doesn’t involve the use of a single gun or car chase.
If there is one complaint, I suppose it could be over the somewhat thin back-story and characterization of Stone. I don’t know what a medical officer is exactly doing in space fixing the Hubble telescope but oh well. Cuaron keeps the audience firmly stuck in Stone’s predicament; we do not cut away to any flashbacks of life on Earth, and so it makes fleshing out a central character notable difficult. People don’t usually open up into revealing monologues while they’re trying to fight for immediate survival. She’s got the standard tragic back-story, losing a daughter, but for me this was enough to work with. I don’t necessarily need Stone to be a thriving, complex, emotionally nuanced character because my empathy was already there as soon as the peril began. I wanted her to survive because she was a person; I didn’t have to relate to her on a deeper fundamental level to root for her survival. There are some nice late scenes where Stone reflects on the existential crisis, on knowing her imminent death, on the fog she’s been trapped within since her daughter’s accidental death. Bullock (The Heat), in her best performance to date, is able to pull you in. If faced with your imminent end, how would you attempt to make peace of things, let alone stranded away from all human contact? It’s a strong awards-caliber performance and while her character isn’t given much development, she still has an arc, and I think there’s a greater thematic link with her crossing.
I’m no fan of Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, To the Wonder) but I understand people’s assertion that the man is a film theologian, making the theater a borderline religious experience for his faithful fans. In my eyes, Gravity has an unmistakable spiritual subtext that it can be viewed in different directions. Firstly, it’s hard not to feel an overpowering sense of awe when taking in the sheer magnitude and beauty of the incalculable universe. But then there’s Cuaron’s opening text that prefaces how outrageously impossible life in space is, contemplating all the harsh realities. And yet, here we are. Whether you chalk that up to something religious like God or just the fortune of the cosmos, it’s still a remarkable journey. The evolution of Stone is also reminiscent of that of life on Earth. When she finds refuge in the space station, she removes her suit, curling up in a fetal ball, while the camera centers her and she slowly rotates. The womb imagery is obvious but still effective. There’s also a third act assist that seems like direct divine intervention by most accounts. Then, spoilers, as she lands on a hospitable planet, she emerges from the sea, triumphant, taking her first steps onto land. Triumphant against all odds, against the cruel vacuum of space, life proves to be the winner. Again, whether you ascribe this to a creator God or a wonder of lucky evolutionary forces, it’s hard to escape Cuaron’s spiritual subtext tugging away at you, making the personal survival of Stone a greater analogue for the genesis of mankind and the emergence of humanity.
This is one of the few films I would recommend seeing in 3D. Cuaron has spent four and a half years translating his vision to the big screen and you’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t see Gravity on the biggest screen possible. It is a film experience to be savored that will not measure up when you are forced to watch such outsized splendor on your puny home TV. This is an expertly made thriller, a visually transcendent, cutting-edge trip to space, and a revitalizing time at the movies. It’s as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. It’s bursting with stimulation for the senses as well as a reawakened sense of spirituality, of something greater to be thankful for. I am in awe of Curaron as a filmmaker and I am in awe of his finished product. It was worth the wait. Now I hope I never have to wait another seven long years again before I see the words “directed by Alfonso Cuaron” again.
Nate’s Grade: A