I did my best to avoid any writings about or promotions for Gravity before seeing it. All I needed to know was that Cuarón – who has proven himself one of the most visually innovative and emotionally engaging directors of our day with films like Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – was at the helm and doing his thing. The basic premise – a small group of astronauts (including two played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) are somehow sent adrift into space – was catchy enough to snag my interest, and high-concept enough to caution me against learning too much more. I had a feeling that the less I knew, the better.
In some ways I was right. Not knowing the fates of these characters is key to experiencing the film as intended. But in other ways the lack of information only misaligned my expectations. Based on the haunting, minimalist poster and blink-and-miss-them television spots, I was under the impression that Gravity was going to be a classic space opera head trip on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey. I imagined an hour or so of Sandra floating around in the cosmos, contemplating humanity’s infinitesimal impact on the grand scale of universal design and hallucinating a bunch of cool-looking floating babies and crap.
I could not have been more bone-crushingly, gut-punchingly wrong.
Gravity is a pedal-to-the-metal action movie. Starting with its gripping, insanely elaborate opening scene (a 10-minute single-take space ballet involving three spacewalking astronauts, the Hubble Telescope, a space shuttle, and a whole mess of space debris), the film clearly has one aim and one aim only: to freak the zero-gravity crap out of us. The next 80 minutes of Gravity – or, as I like to call it, Sandy Bullock and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day in Space – is a nonstop nightmare of confusion, discombobulation and panic.
And it’s aaaaaaaawesome.
At the center of the story is Ryan Stone (Bullock), a scientist on her first space mission who clearly gets along with computers better than she does with people. Her character is a bit bland and off-putting at first, but it serves a purpose. Complimenting her beautifully is Clooney as Kowalski, a gab-happy veteran astronaut more concerned with breaking the world spacewalk record and finding the Russians’ secret space vodka stashes than actual science.
Both stars are very much in their comfort zones (Bullock brushing off her reluctant action hero routine from Speed; Clooney twinkling his eyes in the Clooneyest of ways), and they do good by a script that has clearly been kept as lean as possible to maximize tension. While there is an emotional backstory to unravel and the expected underpinnings of existential exasperation to be explored, these elements are kept to a minimum. Again – light on the anguished head trips, heavy on the pant-crapping peril.
In terms of cinematography, visual effects, and sound editing and design, the film is an absolute marvel. It just doesn’t get any better than this – and especially in IMAX 3D (I think this is the first time I’ve ever actually recommended it), where you feel every moment, from the most catastrophic collision to the smallest zero-gravity tear. The experience is more immersive than you can imagine – and when things start to go south, it’s as though you were being tossed about like a sock in a dryer.
Elsewhere – on the human plane, I guess – things aren’t quite as solid. Again, there’s a wisp of a backstory there, sure – and it’s probably wise that it was left as more of a hint than a full story, because more might have interrupted the relentless turning of the screw that is the film’s imperiled, oxygen-starved beating heart. I’ll admit, I was hoping for something that tugged a bit more on the hearstrings than on the adrenal gland, but what I experienced was so intensely good that I’m happy to be disappointed on that front.
At equal turns playful and dire, Gravity is a thrillingly alive tale of survival packed snugly into a humbling spectacle of destruction and sheer awe. It’s a movie where a lonely but determined woman, when stranded hundreds of miles outside the Earth’s atmosphere and under assault by speeding space junk, has only a fire extinguisher – you know, that thing in your basement that you’ve never tested – to keep herself alive. It’s either a popcorn movie with both brains and heart or the most expensive-looking, rousing, and polished art film ever made. Either way, it’s not to be missed.