I generally try to not over-hype films in my head before seeing them for fear of my expectations not being met. That being said, Gravity is a film that was hard to not over-hype…from the very earliest of screenings, critics have been raving about how it’s “the space film they always wanted” or “the best space movie ever,” etc. Despite the fact that I generally try to avoid critic reviews before seeing films so as not to color my own opinion one way or the other, I couldn’t help but see how much people were liking this movie, so the bar was high. And, my goodness, even that bar was far too low for a film like this.
Gravity begins calmly enough; Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is experimenting with a prototype jetpack during his final expedition before retiring, and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is making repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope on her first space shuttle mission. However, disaster soon strikes when speeding space debris appears, damaging the space shuttle and causing the astronauts to lose communication with Mission Control, rendering the pair completely alone. Tension is high as they navigate across space, fighting for survival against impossible odds.
The only two actors appearing in the film (aside from voices) are Clooney and Bullock, who are both fantastic. Clooney’s character carries the same sort of assured confidence that is always attributed to him, but it doesn’t feel canned or overly familiar; in fact, it’s a comfort in the film, as his character is the voice of reason and determination in a desperate situation. Bullock’s performance is what truly carries the film, though, with her inspiring growth from damsel in distress to her struggle in finding hope to her resolve to survive. It’s an intimate role in that it is often literally her, space, and the audience alone together, so we spend a lot of time in her head seeing what she sees and feeling what she feels.
Speaking of seeing what she sees, the cinematography is often used as a tool to change audience perspective. In one scene, the camera shifts from us looking at Dr. Stone in empty space, alone, with us watching her panic as she spins out of control, to inside her helmet, watching the world and the destruction of the space shuttle come in and out of focus as we spin with her. This perspective shift makes an intimate performance even more intimate because we literally experience the same thing that she does. The camera work is also incredibly beautiful; as Kowalski and Stone venture across space together, we are treated to wide open shots that show their relative insignificance when contrasted with the enormity of Earth and the space that engulfs it. Our perspective is shifted again as we see shots of the two of them against the backdrop of Earth during times of hopefulness, but we see them with nothing but black emptiness in the background when all hope seems to be lost. It’s an incredible technique that is as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. Despite the wide-openness of the setting, the great irony of the film is that you often feel claustrophobic; being confined alone to a suit in the middle of an oxygen-less emptiness is a scary feeling.
I purchased the film’s score, composed by Steven Price, a couple of weeks before the film was in theaters. From the very first track, I was stunned by how well the music is able to embody and facilitate the claustrophobia of the film. Much of the score is more atmospheric than musical, relying on random electronic beeps (as if from warning beeps from the astronauts’ equipment) and deafening “whirrs” to evoke feelings of disaster or extreme peril. Perhaps even more incredible are the moments in the film that don’t use music at all, perhaps bringing the claustrophobia to even greater heights. Obviously, there is no sound in space, so these moments are especially profound and, in a way, sobering. There are times of beauty, though, heard in the film’s rare instances of peace, such as in the track “Airlock,” that hint at the final track on the soundtrack, “Gravity,” which is heard in the final moments of the film. It’s a hugely satisfying moment that I don’t want to spoil for you here…just enjoy it when you see the film for yourself.
It has been quite a while since I’ve been as blown away by a film as I am by Gravity. It is one of those rare films that manages to both awe and inspire its audience in terms of story, characterization, and visuals, and it does so without ever becoming boring. I saw the movie in IMAX 3D, which I would highly recommend; the 3D is utilized well, actually engrossing you further into the film by making you a part of the action on-screen. Cuarón delivers on every level here…Gravity is a masterpiece.
Oscar season is upon us, my friends.
Rating: 5 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language