A realization of someones worst nightmare or a rousing adventure into the outer limits. Either way you look at it, there’s no denying that director Alfonso Cuaron’s new space-set thriller Gravity is one unforgettable cinematic experience. I was looking forward to this film ever since the first heart-pounding trailer made it to screens months ago. I was worried a bit that the film would be a let down, because the marketing was so strong and the trailers were so intense, but thankfully my fears were moot once I saw the final product. Gravity is a film unlike anything I have ever seen before and may very well stand as one of my picks for the best of the year. It comes with my highest recommendation, though I should also stress that this film probably won’t be for everyone. This movie is essentially a survival film set in the most unforgiving environment that mankind has ever ventured into; outer space. And while this is something we have seen before in other sci-fi films (parts of Alien (1979) comes to mind), none of them have ever been done on this scale and with this kind of authenticity. Harrowing would be the best word to describe the film’s benchmark action scenes, and believe me, they will be agonizing to some people out there.
The plot is beautifully simplistic; keeping everything focused on the situation at hand without any outside distractions. In fact, the movie begins with the inciting incident in the very first shot, and the rest of the film just follows through to the very end as if it’s making things up as it goes along. The story follows a couple of astronauts repairing a satellite in Earth’s orbit when suddenly their shuttle is struck by space debris from an exploded Russian satellite. This incident leaves only two survivors, Astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), both of whom are left drifting in orbit without any way to get down. Their only means of escape is to get to another space station within a reasonable distance. This is not without peril considering that their oxygen supply is low and the debris field is headed back their way within 90 minutes. This is essentially the plot to the film, and without spoiling what happens next, I will say that the film deftly handles this premise perfectly; letting things play out logically and keeping the main thrust of the plot in focus throughout the whole of the run time.
What is remarkable about the movie, and what helps to make it feel so real, is the way that Alfonso Cuaron has edited it together. If you know anything about Cuaron’s work, you’d know that he is a fan of the extended tracking shot. This technique is when the camera continues to roll and follow the action on-screen without ever cutting, sometimes for minutes on end. This was prominent in Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men, which featured two such shots, both of which ran continuously for about 6 minutes in length. That’s like an eternity in film editing and to pull one of these off requires a lot of pre-planned staging. If one actor messes up the shot, it means that everything has to go back to where it started in order to get everything right in one take. This is why the technique is rarely used, because of the extra effort involved, but it’s a challenge that Cuaron has gotten so good at doing, that it’s become a staple in his films. Gravity is no exception. The opening shot alone runs continuously for 12 minutes before the first cut appears. Now, of course, I’m sure the staging of this shot was helped greatly by the aid of CGI enhancement, but still it requires a lot of faith in the audience to stay involved. And the shot is a remarkable way to introduce us into the film. We see the Earth from space at first and then slowly, a space shuttle comes into view and we begin to hear the com chat of the astronauts, introducing them individually to us, all before the debris begins to rain down.
It’s a remarkable beginning to the film and I can’t think of anyone who won’t be hooked after watching this opening take place. Cuaron has certainly mastered the art of the tracking shot and best of all, it actually goes a long way towards establishing everything we need to know in this movie, regarding the story, the characters and the setting. The rest of the film continues to follow along in this style of story-telling, and I don’t think there is more than 20-30 shots in the entire movie. You would think that a movie wouldn’t be able to sustain it’s tension over a long period of time if it didn’t cut to other things once in a while, but in this movie, it’s an essential element. It adds to the claustrophobia felt in the characters predicament. I don’t think any other film has done this good of a job portraying what it actually feels like to be in outer space. As the characters are drifting around in space, you are right there with them, experiencing the emptiness of the setting. There is no external sound except what we hear from the astronauts’ transmissions. When something big happens, it builds and builds the longer the shot goes on, which makes the tension even stronger. Overall, you get that feeling of being un-tethered to existence and being consumed by the nothingness of space, which in the end is a very terrifying thing.
That’s why I think this film will put of some viewers. I think that everyone will agree it is a good movie in the end, but for some people it will be a one and done experience. This movie will test you; no doubt about it, and I think that’s a testament to the film’s authenticity. This movie must have been very well researched because the atmosphere in this film is so fully realized. Again, the editing has a lot to do with that, but the design and camera teams have likewise done a commendable job here. I almost guarantee that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki will win an Oscar for his work, not only for the amazing tracking shots, but for the way he utilizes the effects work in this film as well. This is an outer space that is not stylized or minimized; it looks about as real as actual NASA footage. The way that the earth fills the screen in many shots is also a chief design element, and it really helps to establish the immensity of the setting. And by making it all feel real, it all gives the viewer a “you are there” feeling, which only enhances the feeling of anxiety when something goes wrong. Believe me, the audience I watched the film with was so tensed up by what they were watching that you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. It’s rare to see a movie do that nowadays, when so many films are geared towards making an audience laugh and cheer at every turn, whether it succeeds or not. For a movie to leave an audience silent throughout the whole showing is quite an accomplishment itself, so the filmmakers should be pleased in having done that.
And while there’s a lot of great work done with the style and staging in this film, I am pleased to see that the actors involved didn’t get lost in the thick of it all. The cast is minimal to an extreme degree; meaning there are only two actors in the entire film that have any face time. I should especially single out Sandra Bullock, since she is onscreen for pretty much the entire film, and she makes the most of it. I believe this is the most impressive work she has done to date. She captures both the vulnerability and the strength of the character in a very believable way, and makes Ryan Stone a character that we want to see make it out of this ordeal alive. She is effectively our guide through this adventure. We see everything through her eyes and every mishap she encounters is given a personal resonance that the audience will surely feel along with her. Sandra Bullock manages to embody this character without a single inauthentic note in her performance, and that’s a pleasing thing to see in a challenging movie like this. George Clooney’s performance may not be as nuanced as Sandra Bullock’s, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be either. He’s supposed to be the handsome and charming astronaut character in this film, and that’s exactly what Clooney is good at. He provides the film with some much needed levity, and his inclusion is a good balance for the movie. It’s rare when you get a film with a cast this small, but I’m certainly happy that the two actors involved made it work.
Any flaw you may find in this film may come from the different attempts the filmmakers made in extending the film’s run time, which is a surprisingly compact 91 minutes. Admittedly, the film hits it’s lowest points when things start to settle down, but that is a rare occurrence. Also, the authenticity feels as real as it possibly can be, but I don’t know if everything is scientifically sound. Some people may nitpick and say that some moments could never happen in reality, particularly towards the end, but I doubt that anyone will make much of a fuss over this film. This movie is a standout and rightfully earns it’s place among other sci-fi classics. Alfonso Cuaron crafted this movie as both an experience and an inspiring portrayal of man’s ingenuity in the face of nature’s extremes. I can see this film inspiring a lot of other people to take an interest in space exploration, even when it turns just as many people off that kind of idea. There are even some subtle loving nods to other sci-fi classics, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Alien (1979), which shows where Cuaron had clearly drawn some of his inspiration. Also, it makes sense that the voice of the unseen Mission Control commander in this movie is none other than actor Ed Harris, who played the same kind of role in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995).
This movie succeeds on every level, and I’m glad to see a film actually live up to it’s potential and deliver on what it promises. The trailers for the film did a good job of conveying the intensity of the film, but the entire experience is something that everyone should take in, even though it will push a lot of people harder than they would like to. I should also mention that I watched this movie in IMAX 3D, and if there was ever a film that was justified for this format, this was it. The IMAX screen does a lot towards enhancing the vastness of the outer space setting, which made all of those heart-pounding scenes even more of an experience. The 3D also was used effectively, if not entirely un-noticeable. Sometimes you’d see a piece of debris shoot past the camera or a drop of liquid floating in mid-air, but otherwise everything else was subtly done in three-dimensions. Overall, one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve had so far this year, and I’m sure that many will share that same feeling. I’m pleased to see a director like Alfonso Cuaron pushing his cinematic styles into new places, because it leads to unforgettable experiences like this one. Hopefully, whatever project he chooses next will be as engaging as this one. It’s rare to see a movie be “out-of-this-world” and so grounded at the same time; something all audiences must see just for the experience alone.