As a child, I remember looking up and being fascinated by space. Its size, possibilities, and emptiness were magical, and there is still something about the final frontier that captures that sense of childlike wonder, even as I grow older. Gravity plays on just that and much, much more.
You see, in addition to being space’s awe-inspiring properties, it also has the ability to produce a primal fear in us. One of Gravity’s opening title cards reminds us that nothing can survive in space, a phrase that immediately intimidates that aforementioned child who looked up at the stars. There aren’t many things more terrifying than dying of oxygen deprivation in that cold emptiness. Floating into blackness, alone, as your O2 supplies dwindle is pure nightmare fuel to me, precisely because it’s possible, and that’s the source of Alfonso Cuarón’s project’s strength – all of the scenarios he hurls at the viewer are scientifically possible (with one or two exceptions), and absolutely plausible.
None of the suspense in Gravity would be possible if director/writer Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban, Children of Men) didn’t force the viewer to invest in George Clooney and Sandra Bullock from the get-go. Long takes have been used throughout cinema history to create dramatic effect and showcase characters (think Citizen Kane’s childhood scene or the opening shot in Cuarón’s Children of Men), and Gravity’s 17-minute opening shot scene out as one of the most breathtaking in film history. That view of Earth mimiced documentary footage with a flair for the fantastic.
Cuarón told the New York Times that “the ultimate goal of this whole experiment was for the audiences to feel as if they are a third character who is floating with our other two characters in space.” He and five-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World, Children of Men) use experimental shots and play with sound to engage the viewer through several senses at once, often switching between first and third person several times within a single take. It’s a bit disorienting but it’s wildly effective, and you feel as isolated and helpless as Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone. And Clonney put in a great turn as veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, the cocky but lovable guy on his last mission miles above the earth.
If I have to be honest with you, though, it was space that really stole the show. The viewer is constantly reminded of its all-emcompassing darkness and sheer immensity at just about every turn, and its incredible beauty was constantantly juxtaposed with the danger that it also holds. Clooney’s tear-enducing sunset call and Bullock’s conversation with Aningaaq as she loses hope in a suicidal spiral are some of the most awe inspiring yet chilling scenes I’ve ever seen (fun fact: there’s a seven-minute campanion short to Gravity called Aningaaq, directed by Cuarón’s 34-year old son about the latter scene). Space constantly threatens, but it constantly reminds Stone and Kowalski of life’s brilliance.
Unlike 2001: A Space Oddessy, Gravity opts not to ponder philisophical themes and warp perception, though it does explore the psychology of its characters. It also plays on motifs of life and death, beauty and emptiness, and survival at all costs. The cinematography is sure to get a nod at this year’s Academy Awards, and right now this has to be the best movie I’ve seen all year. Steven Price’s fantastic score sealed the deal with its multiple tones ranging from ambient to full on blarring desperation to elevate this work from great to unbelievable.
Shell out the $15 to see this one in Imax, as Gravity is one of the few films that is enhanced by 3D. Cuarón’s modern masterpiece will inspire for years to come.
4-1/2 out of 5 Stars