There’s a moment in Gravity when you suddenly realize you’re not safe. Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is installing a component for the Hubble space telescope, wrapped in her bulky spacesuit. Mission Commander Kowalski (George Clooney) loops around her, showboating while he makes small talk with Mission Control. The camera circles in one of director Alfonso Cuarón’s signature long takes, framing up Bullock with just the blue orb of planet Earth behind her. The 3D pulls you in, and then it hits you. One wrong move could pitch you right out of your theater seat, sending you hurtling through the IMAX screen and toward the planet far, far below.
And that’s just three minutes in.
A visceral, mesmerizing adventure
Gravity isn’t so much a sci-fi movie as it is a survival film: two people against the elements, only as the film’s opening title card reminds us, it’s in the harshest environment possible. Kowalski and Stone are on a spacewalk when a wave of errant space debris comes their way. You’ve seen the trailer. Bad things happen. Vessels are destroyed. And the pair have to find a way to save themselves without any help from the folks back home. From that straightforward premise, Cuarón (Children of Men) crafts a visceral, mesmerizing adventure.
We’ve seen films set in outer space before, sure, but nothing has ever felt this real. Much has been written about the movie’s mix of live-action and computer-generated imagery — the majority of sets, ships, and even costumes were created digitally — and while Gravity contains some of the most breathtaking visual effects work in recent years the focus isn’t on sheer spectacle. It’s on familiarity. From the encumbered, awkward way the astronauts maneuver in their suits, to the cozy interior of the International Space Station, the film is filled with iconic imagery that people have grown up with thanks to NASA and the nightly news. One deviation from our collective memory and the illusion would fall apart, but Cuarón and his team render it all with photorealistic precision. This isn’t world building. It’s reality building.
Part movie, part virtual experience
The film takes us inside Dr. Stone’s point of view — sometimes literally — and we feel her panic as she whips through the void. We experience the absolute silence of space. We feel her terror as she grapples for purchase on the side of a ship. In IMAX theaters, the wraparound screen does more than fill our field of vision; it consumes it. It’s part film, part virtual reality, and every moment is bolstered by a truly stunning use of 3D.
For years audiences have been told that 3D provided the opportunity for movies that felt more alive and more immersive. That it could create living, fictional worlds, but those claims have never really held up — until now. The 3D in Gravity is nuanced; never distracting from the action on screen, but always pulling the viewer in alongside Clooney and Bullock. There are times when the 3D is quite pronounced, but it’s always in moments very clearly designed to accommodate the illusion. The experiential nature of the film helps — I’m still not sold that 3D will ever be worthwhile in a courtroom drama — but the general feeling is that of a gifted artist harnessing the capabilities of a powerful new tool. 3D is such an integral part of the spell the movie casts that its only downside may be that it won’t be duplicated effectively when people watch the movie at home.
None of it would work, however, without Sandra Bullock. George Clooney is as charming as ever, but he’s still just playing George Clooney. It’s Bullock who serves as the vital, human core of the film. It’s her panic we feel, her desperation that gnaws at our guts, and eventually, her hope that drives the film. Ultimately all of Cuarón’s efforts are there in service of Bullock’s performance, and the resonant, human story it tells. Gravity does reach beyond basic survival for some loftier thematic goals, and while some may find it clunky — the movie isn’t shy about wearing its ideas on its sleeve — it’s awkward only because the rest of the film is so flawless.
In 90 minutes Alfonso Cuarón has managed to take one of the most well-mined settings for sci-fi films and change it forever. Gravity turns outer space from the broad canvas that we use for whatever fantastical scenarios we want to paint, and makes it a real place. One with rules, physicality, and consequences. "We wanted to surrender to the reality of the technologies that exist," the director recently told New York Magazine. "We wanted it to almost have the experience of an IMAX documentary gone wrong." He’s succeeded in almost every way possible. Gravity doesn’t just raise the bar; it creates a new category.
Twenty years from now, we’ll see new writers and directors point back to Gravity as the movie that first made them realize the potential of filmmaking. But perhaps Alfonso Cuarón’s masterwork will have an effect in the meantime, as well. It’s been a year of disappointing sci-fi, and while the fantastical worlds of Star Wars and Star Trek aren’t going anywhere, maybe everyone else will learn to put the brakes on their action-movie antics. Now that they see it’s possible, maybe they’ll learn to explore the incredible power and danger of space and science itself. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Gravity opens in theaters October 4th. See it in 3D at all costs.