WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD
“Clear skies with a chance of satellite debris.”
— Dr. Ryan Stone
Gravity is an adrenaline-fuelled thrill ride that wastes no time in pulling the audience into its orbit. Early in the film’s runtime, director Alfonso Cuaron pulls a gun on you and asks you to kindly move to the edge of your seat. Better get comfortable; you’ll be rooted there right up to the moment the credits roll. The film’s opening tagline: “Life in space is impossible,” sets the stage for the disaster about to unfold. Better hold on to something. Anything.
The premise is simple. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer, who is still finding her space legs when debris from a Russian spy satellite tears through the hull of her shuttle and leaves her stranded. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is the only other survivor of the wreck and together they must try to find their way safely back to earth. Cut off from communication with Houston and running out of both jet propellant and oxygen, the two astronauts depend on each other to survive. It isn’t long, however, before Dr. Stone finds herself facing the empty void of space and all its perils completely alone.
Gravity is an exercise in balancing extreme contrasts. Alfonso Cuaron manages to mix minimalism (plot, setting, and characters) with the most convincing special effects and high-octane action sequences I’ve seen in a film to date. The pacing is at once frenzied and meditative. There is a graceful interplay between moments of pensive inactivity followed by nerve-shattering, explosive action. Just as in space, the explosions are all silent. Silence penetrates this film, broken only by the pounding, tension-filled orchestral score and Dr. Stone’s panicked hyperventilating. Claustrophobic close-ups and POV shots allow the audience to live what’s happening on the screen and experience Dr. Stone’s terror firsthand, while long shots emphasize the vast emptiness of space and fear of isolation. Cuaron depicts outer space as a paradox—yielding both intoxicating beauty and nightmare fuel in equal measure.
The visuals in this movie are worth the ticket price alone. I’ve never been a huge advocate for 3D as I often find it gimmicky, but this is a rare case where I would argue 3D is a must for theater goers. Without it, you can’t hope to appreciate the full effect of Gravity’s beauty and pulse-pounding anxiety. Blinking uncontrollably as fragments of satellite debris appear to rocket off the screen into your eyes is really something everyone needs to experience at least once. Alfonso Cuaron’s stellar direction is only rivaled (or perhaps even surpassed) by Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking cinematography. As cameras weave fluidly in and out of corridors following Dr. Stone’s space odyssey, they appear to float weightless along with the protagonist, allowing the audience to feel a true connection with the setting. The plot unfolds in realtime and there are relatively few cuts for an “action” movie, instead favoring continuous tracking shots. The film strives to create the most immersive experience possible and, for my money, it absolutely succeeds. We feel as if we are actually in space. Watching tear beads roll off of Sandra Bullock’s cheeks and float off the screen towards us is mesmerizing. Everything floats freely in the weightless vacuum of space and witnessing this cosmic ballet of tears, chess rooks, Rubik’s cubes, and droplets of fire is stunning to behold.
But thematically, Gravity really isn’t about space. At the warm nucleus of this film is humanity and the extraordinary human will to survive. Even as the film’s visuals dazzle us with the fantastic, Gravity attempts to ground itself in realism. There are no action heroes here performing the usual litany of superhuman feats. There are no cars smashing into helicopters (as in that abysmal Die Hard sequel) or “good guys” escaping unharmed through a hail of bullets (as in practically every action blockbuster ever made). In Gravity, just managing to grab hold of something at the right moment is a superhuman feat. Just mustering the will to go on in the face of supreme adversity is tantamount to dodging bullets.
Sandra Bullock’s towering performance as Dr. Ryan Stone (so named, according to her, because her father wanted a boy) drives this humanity. Over the course of the movie we watch Bullock’s character undergo a symbolic rebirth. This metaphor is pushed to the forefront in a scene in which, having narrowly escaped death, Ryan slowly emerges from her space suit placenta and assumes a fetal position–complete with umbilical cord–suspended majestically and framed in light (this scene is perhaps a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey). At the beginning of the film, we meet a woman who has become cold and distant. As her tragic backstory is revealed, it seems Dr. Stone has no real reason to keep on living. She wants nothing more than to cloister herself off from the world and enjoy the silence of space. Yet in her struggle to survive, she realizes life itself is a good enough reason to push on. In the film’s climax, it is evident that Dr. Stone has reached an epiphany; for the first time in a long time she feels alive. She resolves to fight to the end and that however things work out, “It’ll be one helluva ride.”
Gravity depicts outer space better than any movie I’ve ever seen and is easily the best new film I’ve seen this year. If you haven’t seen it yet: just go. I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I did.