Bottom Line: technically innovative, visually brilliant, a watershed moment in digital cinema. Alfonso Cuarón has crafted a unique masterpiece that will thrill you while making you think.
Grade: A +
by Colin Walsh
At 91-minutes (curiously the exact length of a low-earth orbit), Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity" has no filler, it is a seamless thrill ride. Its efficiency is startling because nothing like this has ever been done before, yet I can't fathom it being anymore innovative or impressive. You have never seen anything like this: an incredibly detailed vision of life 600km above the sky, a ballet of weightless destruction that is awe-inspiring, terrifying, and deceptively intelligent.
Adding to his oeuvre of long and elaborate takes, Cuarón opens "Gravity" with a 13-minute uncut shot that smoothly tracks through the void of space, revealing his grand mise-en-scène – the NASA space shuttle Explorer, the Hubble telescope, and, of course, that sprawling, looming planet that shimmers below in all its alluring blue majesty.
In one of the many ways that the technical aspects of "Gravity" work to enhance the story, Cuaron’s long takes are more than just impressive, they are vital to the experience as they create a sense of unified spatial awareness and orientation in a setting where that is difficult to maintain. 3D, a gimmick we have all been growing weary of, is also utilized for immersive purposes, supplying constant reference in front of the infinite depth of space. Throw in IMAX -- screen technology long associated with science center space exhibits -- and you will literally feel like you’re in space. This is truly a miracle of filmmaking – a watershed moment in digital cinema.
Our human counterparts are likable and dynamic -- no surprise to those familiar with Cuarón's films. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) a vet spacewalker on his “last mission,” is tossing himself about with a jetpack, musing with mission control (aptly voiced by Ed Harris). Right down to the country music he plays through his headset, and his lamentations of “the view,” Clooney’s character amounts to a mélange of Apollo-era astronaut personalities – affable and quirky yet unwaveringly, almost abnormally, calm.
Our lead protagonist is technician Ryan Stone, played by guaranteed-Oscar-candidate Sandra Bullock. Very much the introverted ying to Kowalski’s yang. She is intently dissecting the computerized innards of Hubble when disaster strikes, one wonders if she even had a chance to enjoy "the view," Kowalski has to practically pull her away from her precious computer.
Enter: destruction MacGuffin: the Russians, we are told via mission control, have intentionally destroy one of their own satellites, causing an exponential buildup of high velocity shrapnel to enter Explorer’s orbital path.
Narrowly avoiding death quickly becomes the story’s MO as Kowalski and Stone must ditch the debris and head for the ISS to salvage an escape pod. It’s a long shot, with Stone hyperventilating her dwindling oxygen supply and Kowalski’s jetpack running on fumes. The cold blackness of space looms, human bodies do not belong here.
Cuarón takes full advantage zero-gravity to create suspense, the result is intelligent. The truly terrifying moments in “Gravity” are not close calls with shards of satellites or fiery explosions, they are ones brought on by the physics – if you don’t grab on to that hatch, hold on to that tether, you’re going to float away…forever.
Bullock's palpable anxiety channels our own, and our empathy makes the film's sense of dread that much stronger. Although this also happens to be one of the films few drawbacks; is it believable to think NASA would allow someone this panic-prone to go to space? Probably not, but Stone is a necessary element to the story, and in the end it's a small complaint, as this tale moves in a surprising direction, away from the weight of belief or disbelief.
In a recent interview, Cuarón was prodded to provide a unifying theme for his impressive body of work -- a grueling seven year hiatus separated "Gravity" and his last film, the excellent dystopian drama "Children of Men" (2006). Unsurprisingly he responded that all of his films, including “Gravity” are “road movies.” That is essentially true, albeit in epic scope, “Gravity” is a road movie in space, sharing elements of the “coming-of-age” genre as well. Stone must overcome not only the physical challenges she faces, but also the emotional weight of her circumstances, and these are juxtaposed against the frailty of technologies that make our lives run like magic (imagine what your day would be like tomorrow if every satellite suddenly disappeared).
What Stone endures is an almost therapeutic process of rebirth, shedding her (and our) modern anxieties in the process.
What we must now endure is the wait for Cuarón's next project to take flight.