A film review by Craig J. Koban October 11, 2013

RANK:  #3


2013, R, 93 mins.


Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone  /  George Clooney as Matt Kowalski  /  Basher Savage as Space Station Captain (voice)

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón  /  Written by Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón


Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY is one of those once in a decade or so works that all but restores one’s lost faith in the transformative allure and power of the movies.  

Like great watershed technological films, GRAVITY is an effort that works on viewers as a form of pure out-of-body escapism: During its 93 minutes you grow less conscious of your theatrical surroundings and instead become lost in what’s transpiring on the silver screen.  This is a film to be actively experienced, not just passively watched.  Like, perhaps, the original STAR WARS, Cuaron’s film uses redefining visual and special effects to show us new and wondrous things...and what endless awe and wonder GRAVITY evokes. 

This is Cuaron’s first film since his masterful sci-fi dystopian thriller CHILDREN OF MEN from 2006, and his long-awaited return to the director's chair has been well worth the wait.  This is a film that – aside from one very brief section – takes place completely in outer space, several hundred miles above Earth’s orbit.  Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY will, no doubt, be made, which is fair.  Both films are pure cinematic feasts for the eyes and imagination and both present eerily accurate evocations of the inherent beauty and dangers of man exploring and surviving in outer space.  The opening title card of GRAVITY states, “Life in space is impossible.”  At its core, Cuaron’s film may superficially be all about its extraordinary eye candy, but it does tell a simple story with a simple and far-reaching economy.  It may be set in space, but the film still deals with the primal, earth-bound human instinct to survive when placed in a treacherous situation beyond one's control and with no help on the horizon. 



The opening shot of GRAVITY – one of the great shots of the movies – echoes Cuaron’s exquisitely rendered, one-take tracking shots in CHILDREN OF MEN that gave that film such a startling sense of immediacy.  Running for over 10 minutes and in one apparent take, the introductory shot of GRAVITY is slow, lumbering, and leisurely, but it nevertheless grounds viewers in the cold, desolate silence and vastness of space.  Earth is a shimmering and bright orb below the astronauts, but beyond that lies the recesses of our universe that goes on without end.  As the camera tracks we eventually land on a couple of NASA’s finest, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as they embark on a spacewalk to repair the Hubble Telescope.  The beauty and ethereal power of this introduction is undeniable; there’s not one moment where you don’t believe that these characters are indeed in outer space.  

Even though the pair are safely tethered to their shuttle and are performing what appears to be a routine repair, one false move on their part could spell disaster.  Well, disaster does strike when debris from a Russian anti-satellite test comes hurtling their way.  Interference from it causes a total communication blackout for the astronauts with Mission Control, and then the debris comes and damages their shuttle, leaving both Ryan and Matt free floating in space.  Matt, however, has a thruster pack, whereas Ryan does not, leaving her stranded and floating in space with almost no chance of rescue or survival.  Cuaron’s camera here – which gives us incredible first-person shots within Ryan’s suit – provides viewers with an instantaneous sensation of not only Ryan’s predicament, but also of her horrendous confusion, anxiety, and fear.  Her only hope is to reach a nearby orbiting Chinese station in order to have any chance of returning home safely.  

I don’t want to say anything more about the underlining story here.  What needs to be said is that $100 million GRAVITY – a relatively small sum considering what’s on screen - is, without a doubt, one of those most pain-stakingly envisioned and executed films to emerge from Hollywood in an awfully long time, and one that mixes bravura visual effects, sound design, cinematography, and, yes, crafty and thankless performances to sell its ambitious premise.  On a basic level of it being an astronauts-in-space visceral experience, GRAVITY has very few equals.  Despite being the product of what must have been CGI effects – which usually drowns out the reality of a film – the portrayal of space here has an astonishing verisimilitude. We are given a view of what goes on beyond the human experience in all of its gorgeous and foreboding splendor and enormity.  Wisely, Cuaron encapsulates the silence of space, which is crucial to further embellish the film’s nightmarish tension and the odd sense of claustrophobia that the astronauts have while in the confines of their suits.  

Beyond the film’s jaw-dropping technological artifice, Cuaron’s biggest coup may be eliciting in Sandra Bullock her finest and most emotionally raw performance that she has ever given.  As her character and Clooney’s separate, it becomes clear that GRAVITY will be Bullock’s one-woman picture to own.  Not only does she give a performance of thankless physicality (she, no doubt, was in harnesses throughout much of the shooting to sell the notion of her character’s weightlessness), but she also has to suggest a smart and cunning woman that is also vulnerable and deeply frightened by her deadly situation that would strain the sanity of the strongest of willed people.  That, and Cuaron’s screenplay – which he fashioned with his son Jonas – even manages to have time to explore the psychological depth to Bullock’s character, making it that much easier to empathize with her despite her being in a situation we can't identify with.  And how wonderful is it to see a large-scale science fiction/survival film told uniquely from the female prerogative?  The only regrettable element of GRAVITY is that Bullock’s career high and Oscar nomination worthy work here might be ignored amidst the film’s visual pageantry and dynamism. 

Yet, it’s next-to-impossible to ignore GRAVITY as a stunningly visionary film in a relative age when truly groundbreaking films are in short supply.  It’s sure to become a benchmark by which all other future space themed films will look to for artistic inspiration, much like 2001 and STAR WARS did several decades in the past.  Like great cinema, GRAVITY audaciously and confidently marries efficient storytelling, brilliant performances, breathtaking tension and intrigue, and game-changing technological movie magic.  It dares to show audiences the unlimited possibilities of the movies to take you to new places and transport you out of your everyday surroundings.  Cuaron's film also declares that the future of the movies is bright, even when we all thought that the creative well has all but been dried up.  GRAVITY is one of the most visually arresting and powerful cinematic experiences I’ve ever had.

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