I’d like to start this review with a disclaimer of sorts. This is going to be a lot more personal than my reviews usually are. In most cases, I try to stick to writing about why the film is good or bad and leave my personal prejudices or other factors that are only applicable to me out of the equation. After all, those things don’t affect how much you’ll like the movie. They’re exclusive to me. But after spending the last 18 hours trying to figure out how to do a review in that style for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, I’ve come to the conclusion that’s absolutely impossible. Not because I couldn’t write about the aspects that made Gravity so great and leave it at that, but because that movie is more than simply a thing you can watch for an hour and a half. It’s an experience unlike any other I’ve ever had in a movie theater.
I saw Gravity in IMAX 3D, and I now firmly believe that’s the only way this movie can be experienced. I understand that many times it’s a lot of extra money, but if you take nothing else from this review, take away that it’s worth whatever extra cost your local theater wants to levy against you. This movie must be seen in its fullest capacity.
Going into Gravity, I assumed it would dash any dreams I’ve ever had about exploring outer space. My deep-seated desire to be an astronaut would be sucked away as I sat in horror watching two astronauts float almost hopelessly through space. The result was actually quite the opposite. I’ve seen movies focused on all sorts of despicable behavior by depraved people. I’ve seen movies about the most heartless killers, and the worst genocides. Never before has any movie made me hate living on Earth more than Gravity.
The fact I’ll never see anything as beautiful as the image of space Cuaron created is almost depressing. It’s hard to get past. Watching the relentless struggles that the astronauts are faced with, I kept coming back to the thought of how upset I am that I’ll never see the view of what they’re seeing. I’ll never float above the earth and see the clouds roll over land and sea. I’ll never see how peaceful this little rock floating around the sun looks from 600 km overhead. Among all the terror of this film, there’s an inherent peace brought about by the silent of space. Even posed with what seems to be certain death, it feels like calm would be possible, or at least much more possible than here on Earth.
I’ve loved science fiction my whole life. Novels, movies, Ziggy Stardust, I love it all. But nothing else has ever provided a feeling quite like Gravity. There are very few movies I’ve seen in my life where I knew instantly afterward that I might never be quite the same again. Prior to Gravity, I could count those films on one hand. Now a sixth finger is required.
When I call seeing Gravity an experience, I’m not being cliche. The movie is all-encompassing of your being. Watching this movie is physically exhausting. It’s so intense, so absorbing, and so relentless that I wouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself forgetting to breathe while you watch. Every ounce of this film is meant to be involving for the audience, and it’s impossible to not feel that you’re actually there floating through that dark nothing. I walked out of the theater and wanted to just fall asleep in the back seat of my car. The movie feels like it’s three hours as opposed to 90 minutes. That isn’t in the sense of the time dragging on as you wait for it to finish, but rather it feels like you’ve watched one of the most epic films by the time it’s over, and there’s no way that could’ve been accomplished in less than 2.5 hours.
For those who still aren’t familiar, the story finds Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as part of a crew of astronauts installing new software onto the Hubble Telescope. Unfortunately, a satellite is destroyed, and the debris from that satellite is rushing their way. Their efforts to get out of harm’s way are fruitless, as the rest of the crew is killed and Ryan is sent hurtling through space. She and Matt are then tasked with finding a way to get back to Earth, despite having no communications with Houston and little oxygen carrying them along.
This is far and above the best performance of Bullock’s career. It’s helped along greatly by the fact we’re able to almost literally get inside her head when the camera shares a helmet with her character, showing what she sees and hearing her panicked gulps for air. In all the scenes of floating in space she’s incredible, despite really only having a voice to work with. When we finally do get to see her sans-suit, the performance is even stronger, as she tries to counter her warranted panic with rational thinking and calming breaths. Watching her traverse through the ship, there’s never any reason to question if she’s really getting around at zero G, and while much of that credit belongs to the effects team, Bullock had her part in it as well.
Clooney is absolutely stunning in his performance as well. His character has a deep, rich backstory, and Clooney plays all the intricacies of that story so well that I found myself craving more of his half-started anecdotes in the moments between terrifying debris crashes.
But really, the performances are driven by the incredible storytelling here. The challenges the characters are faced with are absolutely relentless. I’ve used relentless to describe thrillers before, but those previous uses now feel empty in comparison with Gravity. Just when everything seems like it couldn’t get possibly any worse, it does. And then it gets worse again. And then it gets even worse than before. Then there’s no way things could escalate any more, but they do. Challenge after challenge, trial after trial, conflict after conflict. It seems to never end, and that’s enough to make this film incredible, even if it didn’t have the most beautiful visual effects in the history of film. But it does.
If this film doesn’t win every visual effects award ever, then the system is seriously screwed up. The visual effects team Cuaron assembled for this must be the best ever put together, from top to bottom, and for the first time in my life I can say I’m thankful for CGI. From the vitals display when we’re inside Ryan’s helmet to the hatch slowly continuing to freeze over, even when it’s in the background and out of focus, every detail was thought about by this team, and every smallest bit of effects is perfect.
I would have watched this movie without the incredible story, just to see the breathtaking visuals. I want to print out screen shots from this movie and cover my walls and ceiling with them. The way Earth looks from space is just breathtaking, and when the camera rotates and stares off into the never ending space beyond, the stars are just as beautiful and just as intricate as the details of the Earth are below. When the Sun rose around the edge of the Earth it induced more chills than even the most intense moments of the film, purely because of the sheer beauty of what I was seeing.
Perhaps the most impressive feat of the film’s effects (and the film itself) is the way so few shots are effectively used. The opening scene must carry on for twenty minutes before the first cut happens. The camera simply weaves between the various members of the crew and the ship showing us everything we could possibly want to see. It isn’t until the first cut actually happens that you realize that was all one long shot, with perfect performances and wonderfully captivating scenery to look at. That pattern is found throughout the entire movie. It’s awe-inspiring.
Almost as impressive as the visuals is the sound design. Remember how incredible the sound was on that extended trailer? Well that wasn’t just extra work done for promotion’s sake. The entire film is on that level. It’s completely immersing, as the contrasting senses of panic and peace could have been achieved entirely through the music and sound effects. Every technical aspect of this film is just about perfect and adds to the story immensely.
This is certainly the best film I’ve ever seen with this small of a cast. It’s the best performance of Bullock’s career. And it may well be the best science fiction movie of the 21st century so far. It may sound cliche, but Gravity truly is more than a movie, it’s an experience, and it’s an experience that no one should miss. It’s a true reminder of why science fiction is such a wonderful genre of film, and it’s a reminder of the power of movies.
Alfonso Cuaron, thank you for taking us to space. The view is wonderful up there.