There are movies, and then there are movies. The former capture our attention, be they on laptop or even cell phone screen; the latter demand it, leaping out from the biggest theater possible and throttling our senses. The immersive experience alone catapults the film to rare air. Sometimes the same film can fall into both categories: no matter how much shade has been thrown its way (including, admittedly, by yours truly), “Avatar” in the theater was a movie; on a dinky flatscreen TV, it’s just a movie.
“Gravity,” the long-awaited thriller by preternaturally gifted Alfonso Cuarón, thoroughly belongs to the cinema of spectacle. See it in the theaters. See it in 3D. See it in IMAX. This is a film that relies on space, in both the literal and punny senses of the word. When it eventually drifts out of the cineplex and on to home video, it will remain, unlike it’s pulpy cousin twice removed “Avatar,” an engaging (though heavy-handed) parable of survival and struggle, an extraterrestrial take on Jack London. But it will not retain the visceral, inescapable impact of the big screen. As the image towers over the audience, we can empathize quite physically with a protagonist dwarfed by the elements.
The narrative setup is elegant in its simplicity: two astronauts, a rookie mission specialist (Sandra Bullock) and a veteran commander (George Clooney), find themselves adrift in space after their mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope encounters catastrophic damages. Their lives depend on their own ingenuity, determination and about five thousand leprechauns’ worth of luck. You could call this science-fiction, for several reasons: first, the setting in an apparently alternate universe where the US space shuttle program remains operational, and second, the story bears more than a passing resemblance to Ray Bradbury’s stunning short story “Kaleidoscope.” Perhaps it a sign that we are indeed living in the future that nothing about the film struck me as especially implausible, despite the extraordinary measures depicted (and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s twitter feed to the contrary).
The inherent tension of the situation keeps “Gravity” pulsing along even in its few quiet moments. At a breezy 91 minutes (including credits), this is a fabulous example of a film delivering on his premise, no more, no less. A less confident director might’ve felt the need to pad out the suspense with even more contrived complications, but Cuarón is savvy enough to know that one problem is enough when you’re talking about surviving the vacuum of space.
That is not to say the film doesn’t have its embellishments. The screenplay, co-written by Cuarón with his son, Jonas, is riddled with pseudo-spiritualism and emotional revelations that feel disingenuous considering its distraction from the urgent, moment to moment task of just staying alive. Sandra Bullock’s protagonist in particular is weighed down by a backstory clearly calculated to heap on unnecessary and redundant sympathy. It would be one thing if “Gravity” were actually interested in engaging with the quandaries of what motivates us to live (if it were, say, “The Grey”), but this is a film too focused on raw, sensual impact to accept much in the way of philosophical ambiguity.
The character is saved, though (in a meta sense), by Bullock’s surprising performance. “Gravity” is not the sort of film we would expect to star the likable, sharp comedienne, but the strain of such a challenging and restricted role has brought out some of the best work of her career. Other, younger actresses such as Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johannson were in the running for the lead role before Bullock proved herself a steady box office draw in middle age; we can be thankful for that, as a slightly older performer entirely changes the complexion of the Dr. Stone present in the script. Bullock is not reliant on that overburdened backstory to make her plight resonate – she has a certain world-weariness to her from the start that makes her choices along the journey that much more significant.
And with “Gravity,” it really is all about the journey, in quite an immediate way. Emmanuel Lubezki, the groundbreaking cinematographer who worked with Cuarón on “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Children of Men” (as well as with Terrence Malick on “The New World” and “The Tree of Life”) has created some of the most fluid, liberating camera movements in cinematic history, using the film’s combination of digital and practical effects to his full advantage. On the one hand, it seems disappointing that “CGI-infused epic” seems to be the automatic way to an Oscar for a cinematographer these days, but films like “Avatar” and “Hugo” were unable to exploit digital technology in the same way Lubezki does here. In extended long takes and invisible transitions from third- to first-person perspective, this is one of the first films ever that really feels like it takes place in a completely 3D, 360-degree perspective world. The camera merely floats through space, capturing images freely and recklessly.
These craft elements, which may signal the start of a new era of free play for filmmakers, belie the director’s extraordinary control and precision. No one would mistake Cuarón for Kubrick, but there’s a quiet shot here of Bullock, hovering inside a space station, looking like nothing more than a fetus, that I think is a deliberate homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Kubrick’s star-child. The ending of that sci-fi classic is troubling: the triumphant evolution of David Bowman is complicated by the cyclical callbacks to the horrors and violence of progress in the film’s famed opening sequence. As witnessed by the finale of “Children of Men” (which departed significantly from P.D. James’ source material), Cuarón is a fundamentally a much more optimistic filmmaker. “Gravity” is just another of his visually arresting, gut-punching tributes to the resilience of flawed, stubborn, beautiful hot-mess humanity.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars