[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Gravity opens tomorrow.]
In the universe, we are so infinitesimal, and that realization is so scary and so beautiful. We’re on this little ball of dirt and water, and we live rich, complex lives, as the vastness of cold, dark space surrounds us. Our problems on Earth feel so insurmountable, and yet they’re nothing compared to the void above. We look up at the sky, and feel wonder, fear, freedom, and despair. With his space-set dramatic thriller Gravity, writer-director Alfonso Cuarón has conjured these emotions in one of the most immersive films I’ve ever seen. Through Cuarón’s movie, we see not only the fearsomeness of space and the awe of our planet, but all of the dazzling effects, breathtaking action, and electric thrills are in service to a sad, moving tale of being trapped by hopelessness and fighting to endure.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is in outer space with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) to install special equipment on the Hubble telescope. Stone only has about six months of training but the chatty Kowalsky is at ease and in control. But as the two are working to complete the mission, debris from a destroyed Russian satellite begins raining down on their shuttle, and a desperate Stone struggles to survive by finding her way home through the emptiness of space.
The technical bravura on display in Gravity is utterly remarkable. Special equipment had to be invented in order to realize Cuarón’s vision for the film, and the hard work that went into creating that equipment has been well worth the effort. I can’t remember the last time I was completely immersed in a film from start to finish. The movie begins with a 20-minute long, unbroken shot that never for a moment feels like Cuarón showing off. On the contrary, we quickly stop noticing as we turn our attention to the plot and characters, but we can always feel the lack of a cut. The scene is perfectly paced without a single edit to guide the action. Instead, Cuarón relies on camera placement, music, and the performances.
That’s all we get in that opening, and what we get takes our breath away. We forget to breathe. We forget that Stone can’t die in the first twenty minutes otherwise there’s no movie. We jump at every piece of debris that rips apart the shuttle even though there’s no accompanying sound effect (Cuarón is scientifically faithful by having no sound in the vacuum of space). Cuarón’s complete, exacting control makes us feel out of control as we go tumbling into the void. The movie also proves that even in moments of absolute terror, the reassuring voice of George Clooney is one of the most powerful forces in the solar system if not the galaxy.
However, the film’s true star is Bullock. Most of the movie rests on her performance, and Stone has to face more than just the immediate, grab-on-to-something-anything-seriously-I’m-freaking-out-here troubles that come when a field of shrapnel the size of space station comes headed her way. Stone is also facing some serious emotional trauma, and Bullock does a wonderful job of taking the character’s pain and not simply becoming mopey or sullen. She’s distant, and that distance is represented by one of the many visual metaphors layered throughout the film. The emptiness of space fits her better than the life she has 372 miles below on Earth.
The visual cues are one of the many ways Cuarón organically weaves in the film’s themes and emotions with the surface thrills that get our blood pumping. Throughout the picture, Stone is either struggling to get free of a tether or grasping to hold on to something. She’s both trapped by her circumstances and clinging to the edge of life. And for all of the chaos surrounding Stone, Earth remains below—constant and stunning. The question is how hard she’s willing to fight to get back, and if she feels like there’s any point in returning.
Stone’s journey is a potent reminder that hope is good, but perseverance is better. Hope is almost like a wish. Hope is optimism, a reason to keep going, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But perseverance is the ability keep going, and Gravity celebrates and emphasizes that quality. If life were ever deemed small, it would be against the vastness of space. Gravity shows that’s when life matters the most if you assume your life is worth living. It would be undoubtedly terrifying to float out further into space until you perish, but the determination to return, to hang on, and to bridge the distance is what’s inspiring, and it’s a sentiment that’s earned from the gorgeous craftsmanship on display.
I can’t emphasize enough the majesty of Gravity. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Before the movie was even over, I wanted to watch a Blu-ray stacked with special features so I could learn about the making of the movie. I wanted to own Steven Price’s dynamic, stirring score. I wanted to go right back into the theater and see it again in IMAX 3D. Longtime readers will know I have no love for 3D, and while I’m sure Gravity will still work in 2D, it’s a movie where the IMAX 3D experience is ideal. Don’t go for a half-measure; Cuarón certainly didn’t.
Gravity is cinema at its most powerful. It’s where honest, human drama meets daring spectacle. The film is unabashedly earnest in its emotion and unrelentingly forceful in its action. Alfonso Cuarón has crafted a movie that is terrifying, dazzling, bold, and triumphant. And yet these adjectives feel small against the glorious and profound backdrop of outer space and the story Cuarón has created within it. Gravity holds us in thrall for every single second, and we want to hold on for dear life.