For most viewers, "Gravity" will be the closest they will ever get to going to space. Luckily, Alfonso Cuarón’s film – an impressive technical, as well as emotional, achievement – is a truly incredible substitute. Plus, after 90 minutes of flipping wildly between intense terror and awe, that’s probably about as close as most audiences would want to get.
Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a nervous biomedical engineer making her first trip into space. She’s accompanied by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a chatty, affable veteran making his final trip to the big, black infinity.
While the two are fixing a panel, space debris from a Russian missile plows into their shuttle, knocking them off the structure and sending them spinning out into the unending darkness of space. Somehow, the two must reconnect and navigate their way through the beautiful nothingness that surrounds them.
In the grand tradition of films like "Moon" and "Solaris," the grand expanse of space – a world both unimaginably massive and lonely yet claustrophobic and suffocating – forces Ryan’s thoughts and emotions inward. While floating toward various space stations and satellites, using her dwindling resources (fuel, oxygen, hope) as carefully as possible, she can’t stop thinking about the loss of her daughter back on Earth. It’s an event that haunts her and makes it difficult to bother fighting through the galaxy of obstacles thrown in her current path.
In the end, the Cuaróns (son Jonas co-wrote the script with father Alfonso) are telling a story of personal rebirth – complete with umbilical cord and watery symbolism – and of emerging not just from the all-engulfing, inky curtain of space, but from the all-engulfing, inky curtain of grief and despair as well. It’s an emotional, intimate tale that just happens to be told in one of the most intimidating, unforgiving atmospheres (or lack thereof) possible.
In many ways, "Gravity" plays like an antidote to the issues plaguing current Hollywood blockbusters and attempts at spectacle. Instead of a bloated, waiting-in-line-at-the-DMV-esque running time, Cuarón’s film comes in at a refreshing 90 minutes. Where most action movies are trying to make their explosions louder and more bombastic, Cuarón ingeniously – and accurately – cuts the sound. It uses special effects to make unbelievable and impossible worlds (at least from a technical standpoint) and moments come to life, instead of using them to cover up laziness or unneeded excess.
But let’s not waste too much time acclaiming the movie for what it isn’t and instead praise it for what it is: a strikingly ambitious and thrilling piece of artistic spectacle made to the highest order.
The word "visionary" gets tossed around a lot whenever a director makes something visually interesting, but Cuarón is one where the title actually fits. In "Children of Men" – have I mentioned that’s my favorite film? Oh, I do that everyday? Good – his use of extended long-takes created one of the most breathtakingly immersive experiences I’ve had in a theatre.
In "Gravity," he’s taking his technique to literal new heights. Cuarón’s camera, our window into this world, freely floats around the action, capturing all of the details – both gorgeous and horrifying – and on occasion seamlessly shifting into a character’s perspective. The mesmerizing shots often last for incredible amounts of time, about 17 minutes in the case of the opening shot, offering no mental break from the real pure tension and engrossing imagery.
And since we’re in space, the sound is on mute, save for talking and some muffled booming, clanking and clunking. The only other audio is Steven Price’s score, which adds just the right amount of punctuation to the exciting moments. Well, most exciting moments.
Cuarón then combines these elements – even Bullock’s performance, which nicely utilizes her everyday woman persona to ground the story – to create something that feels remarkably immersive and therefore freakishly intense. The theatre drops away, and you, the viewer, feel as though you are with the characters in space, gripping to what little there is to hold onto. Even the 3-D (that’s right; a rare 3-D recommendation) is used ideally, adding depth and distance to the environment.
Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t "Open Water in Space" either, as Cuarón fills the story (just on the right side of the border of disbelief) with tremendous set piece moments. There’s one moment near the middle of the film – an on-schedule return visit from the debris – that actually made my jaw drop. The rest of the film is just merely spectacular.
There are a few hang-ups amidst all of the mind-boggling visuals and action sequences, mostly with the script. Clooney’s character, most notably, seems just a tad off. He’s a veteran astronaut and meant to be a lively foil for Bullock’s down-on-life character, but he seems far too blasé about the situation – a complete worst-case scenario – to be believed. In a movie that feels so real, he seems strangely fake.
I’ve heard other critics refer to "Gravity" as a ride (The Dissolve critic and recent Milwaukee Film Festival tribute Scott Tobias often refers to it as "Movie: The Ride"), both as a good and a bad thing. I fall on the side of the former, but I’d even take a bit further. Cuarón has made not just a film, but a form of transportation. He lifts the characters and the audience into a world of dreams and nightmares, true wonder and exhilaration once reserved for only a few brave souls.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.