Movie Review: Gravity

If the goal of cinema is to present something viewers have not seen before, offer a form of escapism, and, especially today, make audience members feel like their money was well-spent, then Gravity is the best movie in years. That isn’t hyperbole. Alfonso Cuarón’s first film in seven years is a 91-minute thrill ride that beautifully brings the mystery and terror of outer space to life in front of our eyes. It’s a visceral, immersive experience that demonstrates big budget films in the hands of an auteur can offer something that we’ve seen before, astronauts in space, in a way we’ve never seen it. It’s not hyperbolic to say that Gravity is unlike anything you’ve seen before or will see again soon.

Part of Gravity’s brilliance is how simple it is. After a Russian satellite is destroyed, debris wreaks havoc on a mission to install new programming into the Hubble Space Telescope and strands two astronauts; veteran mission commander Ryan Kowalski (George Clooney) and medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), 372 miles above the Earth struggling to get home. There is nothing spoilerish in that description, especially if you’ve seen any commercials or trailers for the film. One of the astounding things about Gravity is there is nothing more to film than that, but, at the same time, there is so much more thanks to Cuarón’s skills as a director.

Gravity brings space to life in a way viewers have rarely seen: realistically. There are no advanced spacecraft here, no aliens, and, perhaps most importantly, barely any sound. Viewers have grown accustomed to hearing explosions or propulsions in space with the same sound they’d be heard with on Earth, thanks in part to science fantasies Star WarsStar TrekBattlestar GalacticaFirefly/Serenity, etc. Where those productions present the void above as merely an extension of the sky, Gravity demonstrates that there is nothing further from the truth. When debris from the satellites collides with the shuttle, there is no sound at all, and that adds to the terror. The audience only hears what the astronauts hear, which is mostly dominated by breath, communications, and heartbeats. One the marvels of the film, during moments where Stone and Kowalski are reaching for a handhold on the International Space Station or a Soyuz capsule, is that viewers realize the sound of the heart beating is not on screen, but pounding in their own chest.

The power to capture such moments is in large part the performances of Bullock and Clooney, who both turn in fantastic performances. It’s hard to imagine this film with anyone else in the roles. If it had been other actors, the thinner moments of dialogue would have been problematic, but these two manage to sell their plight.

However, that wouldn’t be possible without Cuarón’s direction. The technical achievements of Gravity are astounding, from the stunning 17-minute single take that opens the film, to use of 3D that actually adds to the experience rather than detracting. It’s here that it must be noted the film should be seen at an IMAX in 3D if possible. The giant screen adds to the film’s immersive elements, whether it be when the 3D gives the distance of the Earth, which takes up so much of the screen, real depth, or when an astronaut, tumbling through the void, appears small and insignificant against a backdrop of stars. Cuarón, who is no stranger to technical achievements, whether in the long single-takes of 2006’s Children of Men (his last film before this one) or re-envisioning the world of Harry Potter in 2004’s Prisoner of Azkaban, which not only set the art direction for the rest of the series but is probably the best of that film series. Here, apart from the sound design, he uses real shots from NASA to accurately depict space above the earth and sticks as close to an accurate depiction of what would actually happen in this scenario as possible. This applies to the communications with Houston (and, in a film that has about six roles, an amazing cameo I hope no one spoils for you) to what has been theorized would happen in an avalanche of space debris above the earth. Real-life astronauts, from Buzz Aldrin to Mike Massimino, have praised the film for its accuracy, while acknowledging that any artistic liberties are necessary to present a thrilling film.

Thankfully Gravity is exactly that. It is the best film released so far this year, and it’s hard to image any set for release in the remaining months will come close to what Cuarón has delivered. Gravity is a must see, especially in IMAX 3D if available. Even if you have to drive a few cities over to see it that way, it’s recommended you do so. You’ll be planning a repeat trip once the credits roll.

-Todd Natti


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