The lights come up, the music crescendos into an abrupt end, and the audience sits stunned.
That breathlessness you’re experiencing at the end of Gravity marks the end credits roll and the collective “wow” exhales from the crowd. The movie comes in with a terrific pedigree of actors in Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and director Alfonso Cuarón, and they are its strengths as the film turns your comfort zone on its head yet guides the audience beautifully via sound and sight as you get lost in space with this movie.
Gravity is essentially a bare minimum story of survival. Sandra Bullock plays NASA engineer Ryan Stone on her first trip helping repair the Hubble Telescope, and George Clooney is the lead veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski.
During this routine repair, their ship and mission come under attack by satellite debris orbiting the Earth. All hell breaks loose and these two must survive impossible odds in a sea of black. A lot of people know Cuarón’s work from Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban (the best one of the series) and the wholly terrific Children of Men. In both films he has shown how visually gifted a director he is when it comes to staging scenes. The 11 minute shot from Children of Men has always been cited in showing his eye for movies but Gravity takes it to another level. The first shot almost feels like a reverse of A New Hope. Instead of the Imperial Star Destroyer lumbering into view, Gravity delivers the opposite, having the space shuttle and its crew slowly orbit into view with the beautiful Earth rotating as the backdrop. Just seeing it very slowly arrive into view lets us soak in the peacefulness of space, as well as the cold isolation.
The isolation of space is almost the third main character in this story as the scenario of being abandoned grows by the minute. While one doesn’t think “NASA scientist” in the casting of Bullock, she impresses all the way throughout as a newbie astronaut out of her element, struggling with internal and external challenges. Clooney is calm with a confident coolness as always, aloof and cracking jokes but always in command of the mission, despite the consequences. But this is quite simply Bullock’s time to shine on screen. Despite the majority of her time in a CGI spacesuit, she delivers the emotion of panic, determination, desperation and exasperation beautifuly and you’re in step with her the entire way. Just like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, the movie very much relies on her and she delivers every step of the way.
Visually, the movie is stunning and the 3D is not a tacked on post-production element. Watching the debris fly about as pieces attack the structure in this film adds to the danger the audience feels without the feel of the gimmick of just throwing objects to make them jump. The depth of the shots in 3D add to the emptiness and isolation, almost giving off a feeling of claustrophobia as darkness surrounds with no safe place in sight. Cuarón is such a great storyteller and the choreography of the objects and people floating around the camera and action is so seamless and effortless. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki does a fantastic job lighting the film, bringing together both the CGI and the physical aspects in a beautiful harmony. Of course, Cuarón also delivers in making sure the film has emotional resonance and that the technical and visual genius don’t overshadow the humanity and depth of the story. The score by Steven Price is effective in delivering drama in the right places yet doesn’t try to overwhelm and drive action, especially considering the soundless environment the protagonists inhabit.
Overall, this is simply one of the best films of the year and should be on everyone’s must watch list. Bullock delivers one of the best performances of the year and Cuarón delivers a clinic on filmmaking and sets the bar high on films that can match the emotional heft and the technical magic that resonates off the screen. There are not a lot of movies out there today that carries weight of magnificence like Gravity.
Images: Warner Bros.