My first thought after seeing Alfonso Cuarón's latest masterwork, GRAVITY, remains the one that has stuck in my brain for the last three weeks. I've seen the film again more recently on the IMAX screen, and the thought is only amplified. And it's a simple way of describing it: I've never seen anything like it in a movie theater in my life. I suppose there are many ways of interpreting that statement — some even negative. But let's not be silly or cynical. GRAVITY is one of those benchmark films that stands alone in its greatness, elegance and seamless means of blending the real with the artificial to make it all look genuine in its portrayal of space travel in all its beauty and danger.
So naturally, set in the vast emptiness of space, Cuarón (CHILDREN OF MEN, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN) has chosen to tell the most intimate and personal story you'll see all year (with the possible exception of the Robert Redford-starring ALL IS LOST, which I've seen; that film—about a man stranded at sea attempting to survive—shares a remarkably similar premise and execution in many ways). But take away all of its how-did-they-do-that visuals, and GRAVITY still exceeds as a simple story about medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who is using the vastness and silence of space to escape her somewhat troubled life back home in Lake Zurich, Illinois (a Chicago suburb). That little detail got a big laugh in both screenings I attended, primarily when her spacewalk partner and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) asks Stone what she might be doing on a typical day at 8pm in Lake Zurich. Both screenings were at 7pm, and this question hit at about the 7:30-7:45pm mark. It's the small things...
Despite the endless stream of effects, GRAVITY is an exercise in minimalism, punctuated by some of the most terrifying destruction ever committed to the big screen. A simple spacewalk (if there is such a thing) to repair and add an experiment to the Hubble telescope is cut short when debris from a destroyed Russian satellite is sent hurtling toward the astronauts' shuttle and International Space Station nearby. The first 15-20 minutes of the movie appear to be a single take with no edits, during which the mood goes from light and jokey to complete chaos. Clooney is particularly good at both keeping things funny to deal with the boredom and keeping people calm when anyone in their right mind would be panicking.
I won't go into too much plot detail, but one of the big early, tension-fueled scenes has to do with Dr. Stone running low of oxygen and attempting to get through a hatch as she's dizzy from breathing pure CO2. I'm not ruining anything by telling you that there's a moment where Bullock pulls off her space suit down to a t-shirt and briefs, and floats into a fetal position as she bathes in oxygen. The film belongs to Bullock, and even those of you who have issues with many of her films in the past, you're going to have a tough time faulting any choice she makes in this movie.
We'll give Cuarón some of the credit, but Ryan is a tough character to capture, because she exists in a mindframe in which giving up has its appeal for reasons I won't go into. Dr. Stone is not a natural fighter; she tells us she likes space because of the quiet and that back home in Lake Zurich, she used to take long drives after work just to not have to deal with the painful quiet of her own home. I'm not sure how she passed NASA's psych exam, but there are a few things about her training and her mission that are called into question in the beginning of this movie, and deliberately left unanswered.
I don't mean to downplay the special effects. At times, they are enormous, almost too much for the eye to take in. If you see the film again, it will be because you want to see the pattern of destruction that Cuarón maps out. And rest assured, there is more than one disaster that must be dealt with during the course of GRAVITY. But I was equally mystified by the pattern of salvation that is laid out before us (by screenwriters Cuarón and son Jonas), and the chances of success of each new task—let alone ultimately surviving—seem too infinitesimal to even comprehend. That's the true gravity of the title; it's the weight of the stakes, the responsibility for human life, even if the only life involved is yours. The pressure of carrying on is heavy here. I should add that since there is no sound in space, watching these disasters unfold in silence (outside of the devastating score by Steven Price).
However you chose to watch GRAVITY—as a literal survival adventure or as a metaphor about the perils of simply living—it all works, even the small touches like having Ed Harris be the voice of Houston's Mission Control, a clear nod to the now-second-best, reality-based look at space travel APOLLO 13.
I should add that if you have the chance to see this film in IMAX, you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't do so. Seeing it in 3-D is a given; it might be not just the best, but also the most appropriate use of 3-D in the last 10 years. But the IMAX 3-D combination adds so much to the experience; I can't even imagine watching this at home—it would be such a lesser thing. The bottom line is, at this point, if you aren't chomping at the bit to see GRAVITY three or four times in the next couple of weeks, nothing will convince you, and you're a cynical bastard who hates movies and living. As for the rest of you right-thinking, wonderful people, have at it in all its magnificence.