"Gravity" is the very rare case of a film deserving of all the hype it is receiving. And I am about to heap some more on top.
Specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are trying to run the very test Ryan is on this mission for, the test she trained for six months before traveling to space to complete, the very last thing they have to do before returning to the shuttle, and then to Earth, when they receive an urgent message from Houston. Russia destroyed one of their satellites with missiles, creating a debris field, and a chain reaction, destroying more vessels in the wake. The growing mass of debris is headed their way and they need to get to safety immediately. Before they can, the debris hits their shuttle, rendering it useless, and Ryan and Matt have to come up with an alternative plan. They also lose communication with Mission Control leaving experienced veteran Matt with rookie Ryan on her first space mission. They are going to try to get to the International Space Station, a distance away, and use one of the escape pods to reach a Chinese shuttle, which is even further away. And Matt estimates they have about 90 minutes before the debris returns.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men", "Y Tu Mama Tambien", "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"), and written by Alfonso and his son Jonas, "Gravity" is an almost perfect film. One of the reasons for this near perfection is it seems so simple - yet a lot of work went into making this film seem so simple.
The camera moves around a lot – the characters are floating in space, it would seem odd if they remained stationary – but I was very concerned this would cause some motion sickness. Cuaron does a very interesting thing. For instance, he shows us Ryan and Matt spinning, unable to control their movements, establishing their sense in space. Once he does this, Cuaron moves the camera towards Ryan until we are looking out of her helmet sharing her point of view. This is a remarkably good way of establishing both Ryan's place and situation before making us a part of her universe. It is also a great way to create some suspense; we can see Ryan has very little control as she spins around and around until we take her point of view and become a part of her journey and struggle. Strangely, because the camera’s movements are controlled by computer, the nausea which can be caused by handheld camera isn’t really a factor. Films like “Captain Phillips” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” are much more likely to cause problems if you suffer from motion sickness.
Cuaron and his team developed new technology to help make this film seem more real. It is always thrilling to see something new in film, to participate in something like this, to see the beginning of an exciting technological advance. While watching James Cameron's "The Abyss", I remember being awed by the Water Sprite creature. The technology used to create this character was further developed for the T-1000 in "Terminator 2". Now, it seems almost commonplace. In fact, the trailer for the new Keanu Reeves film "47 Ronin" played before "Gravity" and this same technology was used at least twice in that two-minute commercial. Now, when you watch "The Abyss", the Water Sprite seems almost quaint, almost prehistoric. The technology used to make Bullock and Clooney seem like they are actually in space, is already good, but I can't wait to see how it develops and how it is used in future films. Someday, I suspect we will watch “Gravity” again and consider how quaint that technology is.
As Ryan and Matt float through space you get a real sense of how helpless their situation is, even before the debris hits their shuttle – tools float away, they are tethered to the space shuttle by a small cable, communication is tenuous at best – and this sets you on edge almost immediately. Then, when all hell breaks loose, you have to wonder how they might ever make it out of this situation.
As impressive as the technology to create these images is, the cinematography is every bit the equal. Earth, and little else, frequently pops up, trying to dominate the blackness of space, showing us the void they are drifting through. The shuttle they use and the two other ships are represented, but they barely make an impression. And that is sort of the point – space is supposed to feel overwhelming.
There has been a lot of press recently about 3-D movie ticket sales. Quite honestly, there are too many films coming out that don't need to be in 3-D - the studios are releasing anything they can in this format to squeeze an extra $3 or $4 per ticket out of our wallet. And the public is catching on as they avoid paying this extra fee for many of these films. So when a film like "Gravity" is released and uses the 3-D technology in, perhaps, the best way since “Avatar”, you should run, jump and go to the first screening you possibly can. The very composition of this film lends itself to the process – very often, one or two characters are the only figures on screen, against the black of space, allowing the figures to pop out and float in front of us, the vastness of outer space beyond them. I would really recommend the splurge of an IMAX 3-D ticket. It would be worth it.
Cuaron spent a lot of time working out all of the technical issues of this landscape and the sound design is also pretty extraordinary. Another director, say, Michael Bay on "Armageddon", fills the soundscape with explosions and music. In space, sound can't travel, so this is unrealistic. And annoying. In "Gravity", when the debris hits the shuttle, we see the destruction and hear some of it, but it sounds like an echo. Cuaron is letting the silence of space envelope us as it would the astronauts.
All this technology and production design would be a waste if we didn’t have believable characters to root for, to take the journey with. Bullock and Clooney’s characters are basically it and they quickly give us insight into each of their characters, allowing us to get to know them a little bit. We don’t have a lot of time before the problems begin, but as the narrative moves forward, we learn little bits here and there. Surprisingly, these small moments do make us care about each of these characters and we find ourselves rooting for them to make it through this ordeal. My technical eye realizes the character development is very minimal. But the movie-lover in me embraces these moments and I begin to get lost in the story.
Bullock’s performance is very good and different from most of the other films she has done. The only other instance I can recall of an actress taking on such a different role is when Meryl Streep starred in “The River Wild”, an action film. Bullock’s portrayal of Ryan Stone is very physical and very challenging. As she is swinging and rotating through space, she manages to make us believe in her character’s dire situation. Again, it is remarkable how moving her character is when she has so little time to create one.
Alfonso Cuaron is a gifted filmmakers. He isn’t the most prolific director working today, but he spends a lot of time crafting, shaping and making films that are interesting and unique. “Gravity” is his best film yet and one of the best films of the year.