I’m in love with the concept of giving one-word reviews of movies. There are so many options spread throughout the entirety of human language that there is always a single perfect choice. For Gravity, that word summarizes the entirety of experience of watching it: breathless.
Gravity is Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, objects that he ostensibly uses as experiments in wringing drama from and mastering the long shot. The whole movie takes place in extremely close proximity with Sandra Bullock’s first-time NASA Mission Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer accompanying George Clooney’s veteran one-mission-away-from-retirement astronaut Matt Kowalski up in space to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
Then, as things are want to do, the mission goes wrong. As you can see the incredibly scary and amazingly arresting trailers, Stone is sent flying out into space and the rest of the movie is about the two trying to survive the stupidly isolating terrors inherent in a dark, silent, and infinite vacuum.
And from the get-go, Gravity grabs you and does not let go. Everything you’ve heard about it through Twitter and from your film-loving friends who saw it early is absolutely correct. By the end of the film, I barely had enough mental cycles left to recognize the fact that I hadn’t taken a breath or unclenched my fists in over an hour and a half.
As great as it is on its own, Gravity is also a film that demands to be seen in IMAX 3D. No more than a few minutes in, the impossibly immense scale of the screen and the perfectly manufactured 3D makes the lost beauty of being space-bound all too real. It suddenly makes sense—a bridge snaps into place, connecting a profound realization you didn’t know existed—that astronauts of course would come back changed people.
Then, once things go wrong, you understand how unbelievably terrifying space is by its very boundless nature. Humans are so small on an already tiny, inconsequential planet in one of potentially infinite galaxies. Astronauts are further rendered lonely in a bulky suit that only echoes the sounds of your own unfettered body. The sound design of the silence is immaculate and will drive you crazy.
A lot of this can be attributed to Clooney and Bullock, the only two full actors in the film. There are other voices, but the only two actual faces you see are those two people, and they can only be considered mesmerizing. Bullock’s fear is palpable. Her reactions are so painfully human that you can’t help but let her open your heart and tear it asunder. She is not just an actor in this film; she represents you—sometimes literally through a first-person perspective—and it is a triumph.
This is not a sci-fi film in the traditional thematic sense. These two humans and the floating, destructive byproducts of human existence don’t symbolize you in space but rather you in any paralyzing distress and we feel every single nightmare crafted by Cuarón in Gravity. It is an experiment in shaking up every fear center in your brain and just happens to use space to heighten its effects.
Clooney, of course, is fantastic as well. As the seasoned space resident, his calming demeanor resonates through the screen and affects us as much as it does Bullock’s Stone. His trademark vocal inflections and perfectly gravelly rasp assure us it’s safe out in space when we know it’s not. (Seriously, if I could hire him to talk me to sleep every night, I would. No doubt.)
Outside of these two beautiful, unfiltered performances, we are left with an almost entirely computer-generated environment. Normally, this requires a certain aesthetic—namely Zack Snyder—but it works for two reasons. First off, almost everything that is tangible and real reflect an authenticity that is both true to life and true to our memories of a space-obsessed culture from the 80s, 90s, and beyond. NASA suits, the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope. They’re all there and they all remind us of where we are: the final frontier.
Second, given that few people see anything of space outside of NASA’s Instagrams and Tom Hanks talking to Gary Sinise, the soundless expanse is generated with spotless precision. Atmospheric auras light up our little planet while the infinite void reflects off of Stone’s visor, all brought to the forefront through the masterful cinematography (two shots in particular are deliciously striking). Everything is rendered to juxtapose the beauty of space with its intrinsic horrors. Do you realize the leap in faith Yuri Gagarin took going to space? You will.
The 3D enhances this. It is nuanced in a way that all 3D sitcom specials could not understand. There are a few moments where it’s the “WHOA that thing came at me” trick, but they are tempered and carefully actuated to highlight the drama on-screen. And then when the effect is subtle enough to only distinguish between Bullock’s face and her helmet’s varying depths, it simply and overwhelmingly enhances the grand scale of the universe.
That is not, however, the only theme of the movie. Like his past films (which are also fantastic), Gravity is thematically complex: the indelible and uncontrollable range of human fear; our capacity of hope and survival against abject nothingness; rampant juxtaposition of warm and cold, strength and weakness, and humanity and nature; the fragility of life; nihilism; and rebirth. All of that is addressed within Gravity‘s tight and impeccable 90 minutes.
One theme that it addresses somewhat awkwardly, though, is futility, namely in the face of Murphy’s Law. One thing after another goes wrong in the worst possible way, and by the end, it feels less like natural consequence and more like a scene out of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. It goes from understanding our fear of being out of control to wondering why someone in control would do this to a person. It’s a minor complaint as far as I’m concerned, but it’s worth bringing up because the rest of Gravity is so damn near perfect.
Gravity is an essential movie, and not just for viewers. It raked in $55.8 million over the weekend as an original sci-fi film starring only two people throughout its entire runtime. It tells one of the most human stories in one of the most inhuman settings and creates drama and humor and hope in an absolute vacuum. It not only proves what movies are capable of but also what a single visionary can accomplish when unchained from the shackles of action franchises and book adaptations. Just don’t forget to breathe.
+ Sandra Bullock and George Clooney fill the void of space with incredible acting
+ Space has never looked so scary and so beautiful all at the same time
+ Sound design makes replicates silence and terror so well
+ Alfonso Cuarón brings humanity to space
+ Addresses complex themes that will stick with you after your heart has stopped exploding
Final score: 10 out of 10