By MARK DISTEFANO
Gravity, the new space opus by Oscar-nominee Alfonso Cuarón, is breathtaking. That is to say, it sucks the breath straight out of your lungs and leaves you hovering suspended in space, inside an astronaut suit. For the entirety of its 90-minute runtime, your limbs will feel limp from the rigors of zero gravity. This is not a film we watch, but a tour de force experience we undergo in vast depths of the void — and one from which we emerge riveted to the core.
The film is composed of balletic, lengthy shots as the camera glides through the endless emptiness above the earth, pausing to study the faces of two astronauts, who seem indescriabbly puny in comparison to the scale of their setting, one which threatens to pull them down to their deaths. Thus, the film becomes a survival tale about an astronaut fighting the gravity of the Earth, and on a metaphorical level, the gravity of her inner turmoil. The two astronauts that just about round out the entire cast are Matthew Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the latter of whom we spend most of the movie with.
After a Russian satellite breaks apart in space, creating a chain reaction of orbiting debris that destroys their shuttle, Kowalski and Stone are left the sole survivors of their mission to repair the Hubble telescope. Running low on oxygen and jetpack fuel, they are forced to trek to the International Space Station — floating over the face of the Earth — where Stone is soon by herself. Once inside the ISS, she must pilot an escape pod to the Chinese space station, before her last hope of returning to Earth is destroyed by shrapnel as well. Clooney does a lot with a short amount of screen time, but it’s Bullock who has the larger obstacle. Doing little else but hyperventilating and speaking to herself, Bullock is required to make us latch onto astronaut Stone and her impossible struggle, and she succeeds brilliantly. We become Stone and are entirely engrossed in her desperate survival attempt, largely because of the fear, the panic, and the sincerely tortured nuances in Bullock’s performance. She’s a long way from The Heat or The Proposal here, and reminds us why she won that Oscar for The Blind Side.
Cuarón first became known to mainstream audiences when he brought his dark, brooding yet ardently human touch to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This he followed up with the magnificent Children of Men, one of the highest cinematic achievements of the last decade. In the seven year interim, Cuarón has been sorely missed and is back now in a triumphant and much-needed return. We should be only too glad to see this visionary auteur at work again.
Part of the reason for the hiatus is the extremely long and groundbreaking process involed in the making of Gravity. Work on the film began in 2009, with a script written by Cuarón and his son Jonas, who were unaware that the film’s visuals would take over four years to create. The camerawork stands as one of the greatest technical feats of filmmaking ever accomplished, right up there with Lord of the Rings and Avatar. I can’t think of a film in recent years that features such hypnotic camera operating, some of it lasting over ten minutes at a clip — to the point where the editing becomes nearly invisible. This is due to the absolutely masterful cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life), who built revolutionary technology to achieve the look of the film and hit a career high with the results. Unlike most Hollywood spectacles, Gravity uses its special effects so subtly that the sheer power of the film’s ability to place you in its setting isn’t thoroughly apparent until the very end. The final five minutes of the film are the most rousing, haunting, spellbinding five minutes to be had in the dark of the movie theater this year.
Watching the film at first, I wasn’t quite convinced it was the masterpiece of 2013 critics had been saying it would be. Then, as the final moments of the film dawned, I realized it had only appeared sluggish and tired at certain points due to its nearly unmatched prowess. This is a film that immerses the audience in its environment with an impeccable use of 3-D, and then forces us to undergo a painful experience as we struggle for our lives along with a lone astronaut, in that harsh, unforgiving vastness. James Cameron, whose Avatar is a landmark of how 3-D should be used to create immersive cinematic worlds, called Gravity “the best space film ever done.” As someone who has viewed 2001 multiple times and even watched an IMAX feature on astronauts that was filmed in space, I would have to agree with him. No movie-going experience has taken us on such a quietly overwhelming survival story, by inserting us in the far reaches of a menacing and treacherous atmosphere, until now. Cuarón and his collaborators have crafted a space odyssey of transcendent power.