The space program reached its heights in the late 1960s, just as the space movie genre did with 2001 in 1968. Nowadays, NASA is just another program that got closed during the government shutdown, while space films have gotten more expensive, but not much deeper. Yet Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men director Alfonso Cuaron doesn’t defy Gravity just to make another Armageddon or Star Trek Into Darkness – and thus, the destruction and thrills hit even harder because the audience is right there in 3D.
A routine mission at the Hubble telescope is interrupted by falling debris from a Russian satellite, which kills everyone except two astronauts – veteran Matt Kowalski and medical engineer turned first time space traveler Ryan Stone. The two are lost adrift in the dark, lonely emptiness of space, with no communication from Houston and no plan to get home. Eventually, only Ryan is left to find another station and get herself home, with the vast danger of the cosmos and Ryan’s own fear standing in the way.
Cuaron has been absent for seven years since Children of Men, yet most of them were spent trying to turn Gravity into a fully immersive experience. With the glut of space movies over the years, not to mention IMAX 3D films, there doesn’t seem to be much more to add to the genres. But while it is easy to be a skeptic, Gravity proves that there are still some movies which must be seen to be believed.
IMAX 3D has been abused and overused so many times, very few filmmakers grasp its full purpose of transporting audiences to another world. Only James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee have fully embraced this message with Avatar, Hugo and Life of Pi, and now Cuaron and Gravity can join the list. It is no coincidence that Cameron, Scorsese and Lee are three of the industry’s greats in any dimension – and now a wider audience knows that Cuaron can stand beside them.
Cuaron made his name with two lengthy, one-take action sequences in Children of Men, but Gravity takes it 10 steps further with no cuts for the first 12 minutes. In that time, IMAX 3D and Cuaron’s own new technology seduces us with the beauty of life in orbit, just as Stanley Kubrick attempted in 2001. Then Cuaron terrifies and jolts us when that beauty is shattered by debris and destruction – but not the kind of generic mindless destruction in most action epics. Finally, he puts us directly into Ryan Stone’s P.O.V. as she is flung helplessly into the stars, and briefly into horrific solitude – and all of that is before the first cutaway of the entire movie.
Once those 12 minutes are up, there is only a little time to catch one’s breath before the next gigantic set piece. In fact, this reviewer barely touched his popcorn and soda for much of the first 30-40 minutes and didn’t move a muscle – except in some particularly seat-jumping moments. But once Ryan finally gets inside a space station for the first time, things begin to calm down by comparison, although the moments outside set too high a bar for those inside.
After that breathless first act, Gravity settles down — perhaps a bit too much at times. Critics below the surface have already nitpicked the human story beyond the visuals and 3D tricks. Indeed, while Cuaron the director has a masterful attention to visual detail, his attention to detail as a co-writer [with his son Jonas] and character builder could use some padding.
Cuaron hits upon a simple, easy metaphor in the vast solitude and loneliness of space – and this disaster in general – reflecting the solitude and loneliness of Ryan as a whole. When Gravity does drive those moments home, they are fairly powerful, but sometimes there aren’t enough of them to go around. Although it is admirable that this film is only 90+ minutes, compared to all the 2 1/2 hour bloated epics these days, one wishes there were a few extra minutes and scenes to flesh the human element out even more – especially with Sandra Bullock being more than up for the challenge.
Bullock’s task is made to look both incredibly easy and difficult all at once, if possible. On one level, all she has to do for much of the movie is float around, scream and look terrified, which most anyone can do – even with Cuaron being so thorough. On the other level, Bullock has to carry the bulk of Gravity almost on her own, just like Ryan, while conveying an entire emotional journey on her face alone in fake zero gravity. Despite her past Oscar victory and box office successes, Bullock isn’t often regarded as an actress who can pull off that much.
But by putting us right in the action alongside Ryan, Cuaron puts us right alongside the draining terror Bullock conveys – and her often drained emptiness. On largely her own, Bullock goes from terrified and overwhelmed, to steadier but still fearful, and from a woman resigned to dying alone to one whose untapped strength to stay alive emerges anyway. As Bullock lets us read this all on her face, sometimes with the smallest of changes, her and Cuaron try to make it as hard to turn away from her as it is to turn from the destruction and awe of space – and don’t come up short by a huge amount.
While Cuaron goes above and beyond to recreate life in space – in all its beauty and danger – he and Bullock go deeper when they recreate its soul crushing solitude, through the eyes of a woman used to a lifetime of it on Earth. But it makes it somewhat disappointing when the theme appears under developed in the long run, as a cost of all the eye popping sights and action – especially when Bullock gets her chances to run with it. As a result, it takes a little out of the impact when Ryan finally picks herself up for good, despite Bullock still doing all she can to fill the gaps.
Although Gravity eventually becomes Bullock’s show, at least in front of the camera, George Clooney helps to pass the torch. With Cuaron pushing the audience and Bullock to their breaking points, Clooney’s usual charisma and steady presence is more of a relief, and less distracting than it could have been. Yet Clooney is the decided second banana for once – behind one of the few outside his Oceans’ pack who can match his star power, no less. But it reflects well on Clooney that he can use his star power in small doses, without being overwhelming or out of place – in contrast with the nitpicks for Brad Pitt’s late cameo in 12 Years A Slave.
The vast majority of IMAX 3D seems like an overpriced waste of time, for audiences and for the movies in general. But it seems that once a year, one masterful way to use it comes out that makes the dozens of other failures worth it, with Gravity as 2013’s big example. Of course, when the movie leaves the big screen and plays on non 3D TVs and laptops, the full impact may be diminished over time like it was with Avatar. Yet the need to see Gravity on the biggest screen possible first hasn’t hurt it so far, with $200 million and three No. 1 weekends racked up.
The hype around the experience of seeing Gravity may seem over the top, and easier to poke holes into once it’s all over. However, all that matters is that it makes sense for those 90 minutes in the theater, in what may be Hollywood’s most realistic, jolting and awe inspiring space simulation.
For those who are bothered too much by other elements and deficiencies, they’d do well to remember that Avatar’s ground breaking experience had far more screenplay groaners, as well as Sam Worthington, in between Cameron’s razzle dazzle. By comparison, Cuaron and Bullock come off looking even better for their game changing efforts.