Is there anything as existentially terrifying as outer space? It's an infinite vacuum, a dark void where, as the marketing of 1979's Alien noted, no one can hear you scream. If something bad were to happen, there's no one there to save you - all anyone on the ground can do is hope for the best. And should you drift off into the void, all that's left is to disappear into vast nothingness. Space is where humanity is at its absolute most vulnerable; amazingly, fatal accidents in space are incredibly rare.
Gravity, the first film in seven years from Alfonso Cuaron, finds astronauts Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney) stranded above the Earth after debris from an exploded satellite destroys their space shuttle. Their only hope for survival is to reach a nearby space station and use its pods to make it back home. The caveat: the debris cloud will orbit back around quickly, raising the stakes considerably.
There's no denying the fundamental truth that this movie is visually breathtaking. Cuaron, collaborating again with genius director of photography Emmanuel Lubezski (Children of Men, Tree of Life), creates a beautifully stunning backdrop for the action, as the Earth is hardly ever out of the frame. The special effects team clearly took their time in creating these rich environments, resulting in a realistically ethereal gloss over every scene. The true virtuoso sequence - the one everyone who's seen it is talking about - is the opening scene, a near-20 minute single shot that drifts in on Ryan and Matt's shuttle, swoops around as they complete their repair mission, then follows the action as all hell breaks loose. It's easily the film's best sequence, and quite possibly the best 20 minutes of any film this year.
As is too often the case with these kinds of films, the ambition is greater than the actual product, even in the hands of someone as immensely talented as Cuaron. Don't get me wrong - what Cuaron does here is nothing short of incredible from a directing perspective, and he should easily score his first directing Oscar nomination for this film. However, where the film suffers the most is on the script level. Cuaron collaborated on the script with his son, Jonas, and the result is surprisingly standard: the basic plot finds Ryan drifting to a nearby space station, surviving a round of debris, then repeat. There's a subplot about Ryan learning how to let go of grief that works well, but otherwise the writing is remarkably flat. There is, also, the issue of the film's score: it's too often invasive and protruding in scenes that would have been much better served with silence. How remarkable would it have been for the film to feature only diagetic sound, letting the silence of space lend to the overall tension?
Even though Bullock and Clooney are remarkably talented actors, their performances are more impressive from a technical standpoint - the ways they shot the roles in the studio - than from a traditional acting standpoint. Clooney is mostly asked to coast on his (considerable) charm as the experienced astronaut, keeping his cool when the situation turns dangerous. Bullock makes the most of a character that we don't really get much insight into - she remains a cypher for most of the film's running time, but Bullock manages to get a lot of milage purely out of panicked looks and muttered asides. Though they both put in commendable work, especially Bullock, it's hard not to wonder if they were cast more for their bankability than for whether they were really right for these roles (it's easy to see why it would be the former; spending $100 million on an auteur's passion project that's essentially a twofer in space isn't exactly a studio's idea of a hit).
I've been working on this review for over a week now. Even though I genuinely enjoyed the film, I've had a hard time writing about it. And in a lot of the reviews that I've read for it in that time, I notice Gravity being compared to two films: Apollo 13 (the disaster-in-space angle) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (the auteurist-driven film, the bodies-floating-in-space). However, the one movie that kept coming to mind for me was Alien. Gravity wants to capture that same claustrophobic feeling of hopelessness that Alien is able to create, the tension of being lost in the void where no one can help you (that the two also have strong female protagonists makes the comparison more evident). And though Gravity doesn't capture it quite as effectively as the previous film (what could?), it comes awfully close. It may not make a lasting imprint on cinema in terms of storytelling, and it won't be Cuaron's masterpiece, but it's a breathtakingly beautiful experience. See it 3D or IMAX if you get a chance. A-