Can you hear me, Major Tom? I’m stepping through the door, and I’ll be SPOILING this movie in a most peculiar way...
There’s no other way to begin this review: Gravity is a cinematic milestone, one we’re likely going to tell our kids and grandkids we were there for, and got the chance to see in one of those classic movie theaters you hear us old-timers wax rhapsodic about from time to time. Alfonso Cuaron has pushed visual effects into the literal stratosphere, seamlessly blending his actors with their CG environment in a fashion that most effects-driven films could never even hope to achieve. But more importantly, all of that ground-breaking work is in the service of something greater. Cuaron is not interested in pushing cinema to its limits just because he can - all of the visual wizardry and nail-biting tension and wonder and awe are in service to what is on the surface a very simple story of survival and what it means to be alive, making Gravity a legitimate work of art - a shared emotional experience with the audience that makes us feel it every step of the way.
The story couldn’t be any simpler: a rookie astronaut and a seasoned veteran are left stranded in space after satellite debris crashes into their shuttle and leaves them struggling to find a way back home. Cuaron and his son Jonas (working as co-screenwriter) wring all the drama and suspense they can out of this basic set-up, and using the simple story to arrive at an extraordinarily cathartic place, both for its main character and the audience as a whole.
The film works on three distinct levels, most apparent the incredible technical skill on display. Cuaron’s mastery of the camera was in little doubt, and his evolution as a filmmaker just continues at an upward slope of incredible quality. The director builds on the long, unbroken takes that made Children of Men a thing of legend - his virtual camera freed from the bounds of reality and allowed to swoop around the action, constantly changing the framing so as to make what cuts there are virtually invisible. Add in the perfectly-timed and executed first-person perspective shots, and the film builds an experience that is both thrilling and immediate. The effects work is truly extraordinary; every bit as ground-breaking and next-level today as 2001: A Space Odyssey was upon its initial release. Many shots indeed are nothing but visual effects, but the years spent perfecting each pay off in spades, as the film looks not like an effects-driven blockbuster but a documentary gone wrong.
The next level consists of the performances and the character work, here shouldered mainly by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as the astronauts. Clooney is fantastic in that way only he can be, making his character possibly one of the most charismatic and electric figures seen on screen in some time. He’s basically a cowboy in space, a rogue and a charmer and ultimately the type of pro who’s constantly joking to keep everyone else around him relaxed and contented - the type of guy who sets you at ease immediately just by being in his presence. Clooney is undoubtedly great, but it’s Sandra Bullock who winds up carrying the picture entirely through her understated and remarkable performance. As Dr. Ryan Brown, Bullock gives nothing short of a career-defining performance here - just as we look back at Jack Nicholson in Chinatown or Bette Davis in All About Eve, so too will we look back at Bullock in Gravity. The work the actress does here is unparalleled - she is often the only character on the screen, and thus has to carry the narrative forward entirely through her actions; something that sounds simple enough, but to do it with the subtlety and nuance of character Bullocks imbues her performance with here is very nearly mind-blowing. More importantly is the emotional aspect - Bullock’s character is very withdrawn and distant, preferring the quiet and solitude of space to the Earth below. But as the film goes on, we find that that reserved nature is hiding a deep reservoir of emotion, which peaks its way out through Bullock’s ever so slightly - a remarkable feat of acting, considering her face is the only live-action element for a good chunk of the run-time.
The third and final level at which Gravity works is the rich thematic depth mined from the central concept. Much like the story, the theme of Gravity is simple and direct, and often communicated through obvious visual signposts throughout. It’s maybe not as subtle as some would prefer, but the way in which it’s crafted and presented makes it hit home harder all the same. As the film goes on, we learn that one of the reasons Ryan is so distant is because she lost her four-year-old daughter years ago - something which keeps her tethered to a deep and endless depression she only find s reprieve from high above the Earth and its problems.
That idea of being tethered is central to the film, in various ways. Constantly throughout, the characters are either tethered to themselves or to other objects, keeping them from floating away in space. Being attached in such a way is both a boon and godsend at various points in the film, as the characters are literally and figuratively bounced around and off of each other. The film is called Gravity for a reason. Ryan finds herself at a quagmire, in both a physical and emotional sense; caught between the Earth below and the black emptiness beyond, she is thus presented with an accompanying and immediate physical choice - lay down and die, or fight for her survival. She lost what she thought was her sole reason for being in her daughter, and through her experience in the film finds that it is better to be alive with her painful memories rather than die alone in the cold blackness of space; better to be tied down to the Earth than drift about aimlessly. Gravity is the thing that’s keeping her down, but also what leads to her ultimate salvation in the end.
Gravity shows that the blockbusters of the last thirty odd years have been getting it wrong all this time: it’s not about how big you can be, but rather how small and intimate.