Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Running time: 93 minutes
Remember what it was like to be a kid, looking up at the sky, wondering what the hell was going on beyond the stars? You knew Han Solo wasn't actually being a supreme badass up there, or that those little green martians seen on Sightings—sci-fi's answer to Unsolved Mysteries—weren't plotting ways to abduct you Fire in the Sky style. But you knew something was definitely happening, and, for a quick second, working for NASA became a dream job. The possibilities outside of Earth seemed boundless.
If that describes your childhood experience in any way, Alfonso Cuarón's breathtaking Gravity will tap into something special. With phenomenal 3D effects and true visual grandeur, the Children of Men director transports viewers directly into outer space right from the opening seconds. Gravity's first 15 minutes are dedicated to a single sequence, where the camera casually hovers around the Hubble Space Telescope as two astronauts, first-time space traveler Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and the veteran wisecracker Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), routinely go about making repairs. Wearing their space suits, Stone and Kowalski float in the cosmos while chatting with their radio control person, "Houston"—it's an otherwise mundane set-up made truly remarkable by the setting's realism. Earth remains visible off in the distance, as Cuarón's keeps reminding viewers by spinning back around and around to recapture the planet in the camera's frame. There's a lightness and ease to the camera movements that lends a certain gravity-defying sensory vibe to the film's opening—you, too, feel like one of NASA's bravest employees, moving weightlessly over Earth.
Meaning, the sheer panic and franticness once a Russian satellite's debris starts hurling towards the camera, crashing into the Hubble telescope and sending Stone and Kowalski helplessly flying off into the sky, is just as tangible. Gravity quickly turns into a race for survival, with Stone doing everything in her power to not drift away into the sky's netherworld. If there's one major problem with the script, co-written by Cuarón and his son, Jonás Cuarón, it's that Gravity is essentially one long action scene—Bullock and Clooney in space, trying to get back home, for 90 minutes. Attempts at characterization are made, but they're mostly tossed in for the sake of two-dimensional storytelling. Stone tells Kowalski about a recent family tragedy, which, of course, is meant to make her a sympathetic character, rather than a one-note survivalist, but the anecdote registers more like a too-easy ploy for Stone's endearment. Bullock, the film's emotional and plot-moving anchor, is at her best here—she's especially on-point during a monologue given in a state of peaceful acceptance, with impending, lonely death on the horizon.
Should Bullock get ready for another Academy Award acceptance speech, though? Not so fast. As starry as its minimal cast is, Gravity isn't about its actors, and, although there's a concerted effort to give the story resonance larger than purely aesthetic pleasures, there's no denying that it's all about what Cuarón's pulled off technically. The Mexican director's always been a master. In Y Tu Mamá También (2001), he produced excellence through simple, talky human interactions, but in Children of Men he executed two stunning show-stoppers: an attack on a moving car shot in the backseat and devoid of any cutaways, and a nearly 20-minute, again single-take climax replete with gunfire, explosions, and all-out warfare. Gravity, though, is Cuarón operating on some whole other shit. Along with the film's effects department, he's created a star-bound landscape that's amazingly photorealistic—it's not, of course, but good luck trying to figure out what's CGI and what's not in any given scene.
It's no wonder the almighty James Cameron has declared Gravity "the best space film ever"—it's the first movie of its kind to viscerally put the audience above the clouds. Moments seen through Bullock's characters eyes—via seamless transitions where the camera glides through her helmet and switches to first-person POV—convey the kind of you-are-there sensations previously exclusive to virtual reality simulators. Impressively, Cuarón opts for the POV flips during the film's tensest, most chaotic action scenes—yes, whether intentionally or not, he's showing off, but why shouldn't he? With Gravity, he's trying to push cinema forward in new post-Avatar directions, to give those now-grown-up kids who daydreamed about outer space a transformative ride.
Granted, it's a lean, bold, hastily paced thriller where space seems like a never-ending coffin, not a play land—thanks to Cuarón, you can now live out those fantasies without any of the danger.