Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón.
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón.
Starring: Sandra Bullock (Dr. Ryan Stone), George Clooney (Matt Kowalsky), Ed Harris (Mission Control), Paul Sharma (Shariff).
Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is one the greatest technical achievements I have ever seen in a movie theater. The combination of breathtaking cinematography (in 3-D no less), special effects, art direction and sound design mean there is not a second of the film that isn’t a pure joy to behold. But the technical achievement – no matter how great it is – is only part of the reason why Gravity is one of the year’s must-see films. Sandra Bullock delivers her best performance to date in the lead role – where she is more often by herself than in a scene with another actor – and, with only a few bare facts about her character, she makes you care deeply about her. It is one thing to be visually blown away by a movie –it’s another to be visually blown away, and also care deeply for its central character.
The plot of the movie is exceedingly simple. Three astronauts are on a spacewalk to install a new piece of equipment on the Hubble telescope. This is Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) for first time in space, and she is the one who designed the equipment. By contrast Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) has been in space so much, he’s approaching the all-time space walking record. Things are going okay, until the Russians (it’s nice to have them as the villains again) blow up one of their own satellites. This causes debris to fly through space, smashing other satellites, and creating more debris, to come hurtling at the astronauts, who do not have the time to get back to safety. Eventually, they become untethered and have to slowly make their way to safety. The problem – there may be nothing left for them to get to safely.
Cuaron has always been a gifted visual stylist. His modern adaptation of Great Expectations may not be a great movie, but is visually stunning – especially in its early scenes. His Y Tu Mama Tambien is a fascinating ménage a trois relationship drama that while low-key, is still well directed. And Children of Men is a dystopian masterpiece – that is at its best during the action sequences that Cuaron shoots with long takes with his endlessly roaming camera.
In Gravity, Cuaron takes his love of those long, unbroken takes to the extreme. His camera moves around the astronauts as they float through space, circling back towards them, and even sometimes through their helmet and back out again. It is dazzling to behold – and refreshing as most movies these days seem to think that in order to be exciting, they need to have rapid fire editing, with images cut up so much that they verge on incoherence, and use special effects for the sake of using special effects, and 3-D simply to milk a few extra dollars for the audience. By contrast, Cuaron uses these long takes – in conjunction with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who he worked with on Children of Men, and has also worked with Terrence Malick on his last few films, so he knows how to do these long takes. Although the film was converted to 3-D after shooting, you wouldn’t know it – every shoot seems to have been designed for 3-D, and it never seems like a gimmick. The special effects are used to create visuals that feel real – space has never quite looked like this on film before. It joins the very short list of recent live action movies that actually benefit from 3-D (the list before Gravity perhaps only contains Avatar, Hugo and Life of Pi). This is pretty much a completely digital world that Cuaron and his team have crafted – and while that often annoys me (because when technology allows filmmakers to create anything they can imagine, they often goes overboard), here Cuaron uses it to disorient the audience in an effective way. In essence, he uses visual effects to have the audience float in space alongside his characters. The effect is stunning.
If it were just the technical elements in Gravity and nothing else, it would still demand to be seen on the biggest screen possible (I fear that the movie will lose a lot when viewed on a TV screen). But Bullock’s performance in the movie is also one of the best of the year. The film gives her a little backstory, that makes her instantly sympathetic, but her performance goes deeper than that. It is impossible not to relate to her on a human level – as a woman struggling to do whatever she can to survive. It’s a remarkably physical performance, and Bullock never oversells the emotion behind it, like she has done in the past.
In short, Gravity is nothing less than masterful in its every moment. While the story is simple, the ambition of the project is huge. That Cuaron attempted it should be commended – that he pulled it off is nothing short of remarkable.