To watch Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is to experience the unfolding of a cinematic masterstroke. Apart from being an unprecedented technical triumph, Cuarón having relied on fledgling digital technologies and unproven mechanical feats in order to convey the illusion of zero-gravity spacewalking, it’s a superb exercise in pacing, suspense, and most importantly, character development and metaphor. Some may take its thematic familiarity as proof that it’s contrived, conventional, and predictable. More discerning viewers, on the other hand, will understand that a story of any emotional significance depends on familiarity; without that grounding, there would be no way to process the storyteller’s intent. Because Cuarón makes his intentions known, his film resonates with virtually unparalleled strength.
Due to its presentation in IMAX 3D, which is unmatched in creating the illusion of depth and allowing the images to remain bright and clear, the film is also a prime example of the correct way to utilize the process of 3D. There are no gimmicks, no cheap tricks, no visual contrivances – there’s only the sense that we’re being immersed, that we’re part of the story rather than mere observers. The projection is, in fact, so successful that I’m finally compelled to amend my usual advice about the choice between 3D and 2D when deciding to see a movie: If IMAX 3D is an option, then pay the extra money for it. I’ve seen enough films in that format to know that it’s worth every cent. All other formats (RealD 3D, Dolby 3D, XpanD 3D) are now officially obsolete, as far as I’m concerned.
The central character is Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a biomedical engineer recruited by NASA to oversee repairs of the Hubble telescope. During the spacewalk, which is overseen by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), their space shuttle is pummeled by satellite debris, which not only kills several members of the crew but also severs communication with mission control. Stone and Kowalski are now stranded hundreds of miles above Earth. Stone’s oxygen supply is dwindling. So is the fuel in Kowalski’s jet pack. His years of experience have trained him to keep calm and think logically in emergency situations. Once he finds Stone, who was sent spinning away from the shuttle when the debris hit, they tether together and begin the long and dangerous process of journeying to the nearby International Space Station, which appears to be their only hope of returning to Earth alive.
The film is a thriller in the best possible sense of the word, in large part, I believe, because the situation the characters are in is completely within the realm of possibility. Space debris can in fact destroy a shuttle mission, and because the debris in orbit, it will in fact return some time later and cause even more damage. This, in turn, makes the film one of scariest of recent memory – not scary in the same fleeting, fantastical way as a ghost story, but scary in a truly visceral way that’s completely comprehensible to the audience. Stone and Kowalski are in a very real crisis, and they must work their way through it. But consider the odds against them; there’s no atmosphere, no gravity, no communication with Earth, and precious few supplies at their disposal. Even in these extreme conditions, they must improvise.
But I’m making this sound so superficial. The film is really about something much more meaningful than generating thrills, which, even when good, are temporary. It’s a powerful, heart-wrenching character study with beautiful, deep spiritual subtexts. The subject is Stone, whose struggle to survive amounts to more than merely floating from one place to the next and finding a way to return to Earth. I dare not say any more than that; you deserve to be surprised by how her character is developed. I will make note of one of the film’s best scenes, in which her emotions finally get the better of her as she sits in a capsule; as her tears float solemnly away from her eyes and into our field of vision, she observes about how she has never prayed a day in her life, simply because no one ever taught her how. With this scene alone, Bullock has an almost certain lock on an Oscar nomination.
Cuarón’s affinity for long, uninterrupted shots has never been used to greater effect. He will often let the camera roll as it glides around characters and machinery, allowing for awe-inspiring views of our planet and the vastness of space. He will sometimes show things from a Stone’s point of view, which is especially terrifying during the scene in which she spins uncontrollably away from the shuttle. One of his greatest achievements is acknowledging that, because there is no air in space, there is also no sound. There are no booms, thuds, or crashes when the debris hits the shuttle; the horror of that moment is aurally highlighted only by Stone and Kowalski’s panicked voices and Steven Price’s tense score music. Gravity is one of the year’s best films, but it’s more than that. It’s an experience you’re unlikely to relive anytime soon.