Over the course of this weekend, the next few weeks, and yes all through this year’s awards season, you’re going to hear a lot about how stunning and brilliant is director Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Honestly, you’re going to be hearing that steadily for the next 20 to 40 years.
There’s no doubt this film—a staggering achievement that almost seamlessly melds visionary cinema, beyond-cutting-edge technology, jaw-dropping visuals, and gripping entertainment—is going to very quickly claim a powerful, lasting place in popular culture. It really is that well-done and will have that much impact.
(For the next few months, the go-to ice-breaker question among both pop-culture mavens and mainstream viewers is not going to be “What did you think of the Breaking Bad finale?” but “Have you seen Gravity?”)
By now you probably sense a big “but…” coming. Rest assured, it’s not that big of a “but…” More like a mild caution about what is and is not so great about Gravity—and there’s no doubt, the great greatly outweighs the not-so-great.
The story, written by Cuarón and his son Jonás is simple: While parked in high Earth orbit as space-walking astronauts make repairs to the Hubble Telescope, the fictional NASA space shuttle Explorer (the film is presumably set about a decade in the past) is struck by a deadly storm of bullet-speed space debris from the Russians intentionally blowing up an old spy satellite. (“Those damn villainous Russians!” *shakes space suit’s gloved fist*)
Sent spinning ass-over-teakettle away from the damaged shuttle and into the great, dark void of space are nervous-newbie scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and calm-cool-and-charming experienced shuttle pilot Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). (Note that it’s the nauseous neophyte who gets the cool astronaut name, while the manly, heroic veteran gets the more realistic moniker.)
For the rest of Gravity, Stone and Kowalski–facing dwindling oxygen supplies, limited jet-thruster juice, and Stone’s rising panic—must cling together and try to make their way to the International Space Station, where they hope to commandeer a Russian escape vessel and get safely back to Earth. (Yeah, don’t think that makes up for the whole “deadly storm of spy satellite debris, Putin.)
As far as plot goes, this is nothing groundbreaking. For the most part, Gravity is a straightforward survival tale. It’s not some sort of meditative My Dinner with Andre in Space—it’s not 90 minutes of two people sharing their thoughts about life and death while floating in the vast, silent, emptiness of space. Instead, the film is surprisingly fast-paced and action-packed, sometimes almost to its detriment. With a fresh, tense survival crisis springing up nearly every 10 minutes, there are times Gravity feels like The Perils of Pauline… in Space.
Nor are these two characters and the very popular, famous actors playing them anything terribly new. Stone is given a fairly rote backstory tragedy that becomes all we really get or need to know about her and her motivations or lack thereof. Kowalski is the joking, country-music-loving, Mardi Gras-story-telling charmer whose rakish demeanor naturally masks his calm-in-the-face-of-danger, right-stuff professionalism. (When we first meet them in the film’s bravura opening scene, Stone is trying to keep her lunch down while Kowalski nonchalantly skylarks in loops around the shuttle with his jet pack.)
Likewise, we’ve seen Bullock play the panicky, self-deprecating heroine who must overcome her fears. We’ve certainly seen Clooney trot out his easy, well-worn smile and strong, comforting confidence before.
But as the film goes on, you begrudgingly accept that Bullock and Clooney were chosen because not in spite of of their easy, recognizable stardom. Since the characters spend the majority of the film locked away in bulky spacesuits, the film needed the stars’ instant, familiar personalities to quickly shine past the blank, anonymous space helmets.
That’s not to say both Bullock and Clooney don’t each get some quiet opportunities to impress—here and there, amid all the heart-pounding threats, there are moments large and small where each actor’s looks and expressions are worth a thousand of the script’s sometimes boiler-plate platitudes.
Of course what makes all this more impressive than the sum of its well-worn parts is Gravity’s eye-popping outer-space locale. Setting the film in the unforgiving cruelties of space greatly ratchets up the survival difficulties and adds a layer of zero-gee, freezing, oxygen-free floating, spinning challenges. (The film’s intro has to pre-explain the whole extreme temperatures, no sound, no oxygen space thing to the audience because, well, we’re ‘Mericans—we didn’t pay that much attention in science class.)
More importantly, the setting also lends itself to all those genuinely stunning vistas: The massive shuttle and tiny astronauts hanging over deep star fields, the incredible blue-green size and weight of the Earth, the planetary sunrises and sunsets, the bejeweled city lights at night below.
Of course these sights, as well as the shuttle, the space station, and nearly everything but the actors’ bodies and faces are rendered in CGI, but there’s never a moment during Gravity when you think, “Oh, nice special effects.”
With his and brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera constantly moving, rolling, drifting, often in what seems to be one unbroken take, Cuarón’s deceptively effortless command of cinema (previously on display in such laudably disparate works as A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mamá También, and what remains his true masterwork, Children of Men) assures that all this feels natural and real—and of course, terrifyingly dangerous. (And yes, this is that rare film that absolutely must be seen in 3D—it’s no gimmick, but a powerful and essential part of the cinematography.)
That masterful melding of technology and film is what gives Gravity much of its purpose. For film geeks, this is one of those films in which the sure-handed use of cinema becomes one of its points: it becomes film as meaning. There are images and moments, large and small, that remind us of the visual and emotional things only film can do: for example, a galloping herd of flaming debris charging across the sky, and a brilliant scene that toys up and down so perfectly with your hopes, it manages to leave you feeling simultaneously cheated, frustrated, and exhilarated.
Still, throughout Gravity Cuarón padre e hijo drive home palpable, crowd-pleasing themes about life, death, living, and survival. While some of those messages are launched at us with an Oprah-ish lack of subtly, others come across genuinely beautiful, their bumper-sticker obviousness transmuted by the film’s unflagging strengths.
The first lines of the film remind us that in space “life is impossible,” but of course that’s not its real truth: the real truth is that living life down on Earth sometimes feels impossible. The never-ending threat of gravity’s pull that gives the film its title is not Newtonian but human. Gravity is not about how to survive in the harsh depths of space, but how to want to survive, to want to live.
There are bits here and there (a mention of the Ganges River at a key moment, fingers planted in mud as life reemerges from the sea on shaky new legs) that underscore the film’s life and death metaphor. And when we watch Stone’s tears float free in zero gee, the almost-trite image does its best to remind us the only way to truly survive life’s sometimes seemingly impossible challenges is to embrace the beauty of sorrow and loss.
(Gravity is getting lazily compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey because, um, well, hey, they both take place in a stark, quiet, more realistic, scientifically depicted world of space exploration. But where Kubrick’s masterwork is about cold, cosmic inhumanity, Cuarón’s film is about nothing if not the warmth of human life.)
(And here’s a question for cine-geek debate: Is Gravity even “science fiction”? I’ll say “no”: Set in the near past, not the future, there is nothing fantastical, impossible, or even overtly speculative about the film or its use of real, existing science and technology. Strip away the dazzling space vistas and Gravity is no more unbelievable or unlikely than say The Grey or the upcoming shipwreck film All is Lost.)
Turning and tumbling through all that, balancing the technical triumphs, the visual knock-outs, the pulse-pounding thrills, the heavier messages, and his impeccable film-making prowess, Cuarón brings Gravity teasingly near to something like Art, something like, if not quite, a Masterpiece–it’s held back only by its need to conform to a handful of conventional, audience-pleasing movie tropes, a little too carefully gearing to appeal to exactly the sort of wide, mainstream audience that would probably never watch or appreciate the superior Children of Men.
Gravity is visually awe-inspiring, but part of that “awe” feels like a natural emotional response to powerful, never-before-seen visuals. Is that enough to make a work truly great for the ages once the awe wears off and you’re left with nice, powerful, but fairly boilerplate ideas about life and death?
Still, like Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff’s penultimate scene, Gravity gets right up there close enough to touch the tantalizing, terrifying, and yes, awesome infinite.