“Life in space is impossible.”
Before we even hear a word from Alfonso Cuaron’s staggering Gravity, a thin line of text already tells us everything that’s going to happen within its slim, unrelenting ninety-minute runtime. Life in space is impossible. But is survival possible?
It’s a normal day for the Explorer team, one that sees Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) working on his space walk time (he’s eager to break a previously-established record by another astronaut) while Shariff (Paul Sharma) tinkers outside the station and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) attempts to repair some malfunctioning equipment so they can finish the upgrade they are tasked with completing. Things are relatively peaceful, the only hitch in an otherwise unremarkable excursion being Dr. Stone’s jumping stomach and her frustration at getting her work done – until the formerly relaxed Houston team suddenly demands an emergency evacuation. Not just for the three space walkers to go inside the station, but for them to get the hell out of their general location. A Russian satellite has exploded and its debris (moving around Earth at a pace faster than a speeding bullet) has begun knocking off other satellites, setting off a chain reaction of zinging space shrapnel that won’t just bust open a spacesuit, but an entire space station.
The evacuation doesn’t happen.
One of the common misconceptions about Gravity has long held that the film features Bullock free-floating in space for most of its runtime – that’s not what happens here, and that’s something to be thankful for, because when Ryan is floating without tether for an extended white-knuckle sequence, it’s almost too much. An entire film of just that could likely kill a person. Clipped off her workstation from that nefarious debris, Stone zings out into space while the rest of her station is turned into the metallic equivalent of Swiss cheese, rendering the billion-dollar space into nothing more than a big tin can (a breathtakingly made big tin can, however).
Her subsequent out of control spinning is inventively and seamlessly illustrated by way of constantly changing angles and perspectives, though shots from inside her helmet are undoubtedly the most effective. The unmitigated terror that Ryan feels as she hurdles away from the station and any chance of salvation is somehow beyond palatable – it’s consuming. Bullock does some of her best work in the film early on, and that she’s able to convey a wide range of emotions and thought processes by way of labored breathing and stunned eyes.
Clooney costars alongside Bullock as head astronaut and mission leader Matt Kowalsky, an apparently beloved member of the NASA family and one hell of a good time guy (yes, the role is a very good fit for the charming actor). A crack storyteller, Matt regales both his mission-mates in space and the team down on Earth with tall tales most of them have heard before, but when things start to get serious, Matt is all business and efficiency. As uncomfortable as Dr. Stone is in space, Kowalsky seems to revel in it – he loves it up there, and both his training and his affection for his profession make him uniquely qualified to aid in bringing Dr. Stone back down to Earth (both literally and metaphorically), at least for awhile.
Gravity moves swiftly (a bit like an untethered astronaut whizzing through space, honestly), and while its plot isn’t the high concept “just one person in space!” affair many people might be expecting, it’s still an utterly enthralling and consuming cinematic experience that has to be seen to be believed.
A marvel of technical filmmaking, there is not one crafted element of the film that doesn’t contribute to its overall jaw-dropping, eye-popping appeal. Space has never looked so beautiful, so terrifying, and so clear as it does here, and both Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki should be credited with creating instantly iconic shots and compositions that will forever be hailed as essential additions to space-set filmmaking. Gravity looks simply breathtaking, a typically hyperbolic term that is the only appropriate description of how the film both appears and feels. With the current trend towards 3D filmmaking continuing unabated despite audience fatigue, Gravity is one of the few modern blockbusters that is best experienced with the added dimension (and if you can get it in IMAX, all the better). The film is an entirely immersive experience, and consuming it in the best (and biggest) circumstances isn’t just highly recommended, it’s nearly essential.
Sonically, Gravity also sounds incredible and like little else that has ever been put on the screen. A flawless sound design and Steven Price’s gorgeous and terrifying score only tie up the film’s peerless technical package. Sure, in space no one can hear you scream, and they’ll also barely be able to hear you gasp your way through Cuaron’s major achievement in technical filmmaking.
The Upside: An absolute technical marvel in every way possible – from cinematography to special effects to sound design to score, all of Gravity’s technical parts work together in perfect harmony for maximum effectiveness when it comes to both the look and the feel of the film.
The Downside: Bullock and Clooney both turn in solid performances, but their failure to truly transcend keep the film from reaching perfection. In any other film, however, their performances would be far from a liability. As is, “not quite transcendent performances” isn’t a bad problem for any film to have.
On the Side: Angelina Jolie was the original first choice for the lead role. Natalie Portman was the second choice after Jolie turned the part down, but she too had to pass on the role.