By R. David
Full disclosure: I loathe this whole 3-D “revolution”. I had yet to see one 3-D movie where I felt the technology was worth its surcharge, never mind delivered on claims to transport the moviegoer into the action on screen. Not one. (And yes, that includes “Avatar” and whatever other title you’re thinking to yourself, “even (fill in the blank)?!” Yep, that one too.) “Gravity” is not only the first movie I’ve seen where I feel the 3-D is a necessary component and well worth the beefed-up ticket price, but it is the first film where the technology finally creates a truly immersive experience for the viewer.
As you watch George Clooney and Sandra Bullock float and spin through zero-gravity space, you will believe you are seeing real bodies floating out in real space. And you will believe you are right there with them. It is the most beautiful, existential, transcendent mind-fuck technophiles and traditional cinephiles alike could ever ask for. “Gravity” doesn’t simply fulfill the promise of 3-D technology and IMAX and Ultra-screens, but it fulfills the promise of film magic at its most visceral level. You will walk out of this film not just giddy from the stunning visuals, but with your equilibrium out of whack. That’s not hyperbole; I literally felt odd walking out into daylight – walking period – after feeling as though I was floating weightlessly through a dark abyss with these characters for the last 90 minutes. It’s a staggering feeling; comparable, no doubt, to how audiences felt seeing “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” (“The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”) in 1896, with its then-revolutionary uncut image of train barreling towards the audience who fled the theater because they thought the train would burst through the screen; or perhaps experiencing “The Wizard of Oz” and its Technicolor majesty for the first time.
Speaking of uncut images, “Gravity” begins with a spectacular, 13-minute single shot in which George Clooney’s veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski “space walks” seemingly out of another galaxy – slowly emerging as a spec in the corner of the screen, floating ever closer across the curve of the earth – and settles in next to Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone, an all-business medical engineer on her first mission into space where she and Kowalski are to perform apparently rather routine maintenance on a space station. Director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”) makes terrific use of the 3-D in moments both big and small. As Kowalski and Stone maneuver around the outside of the shuttle, they sit directly in front us; as they work on the shuttle control panels, their hands and elbows invade our personal space. When debris from a destroyed neighboring satellite comes hurtling towards them with vicious, destructive force, ripping their shuttle to shreds, the effect is nerve-wracking, causing the viewer to flinch and duck in their seats. Their shuttle destroyed and cut off of all communications with NASA, Stone and Kowalski now have to find a way back to Earth (and before their oxygen runs out or the gravitational pull of the Earth brings that devastating storm of debris back around). Watching these two minuscule bodies stranded and set adrift in the vast vacuum and unforgiving darkness of outer space, one can’t think of a more desperate, terrifying and impossible challenge.
For all of its technological grandeur, “Gravity” is also a marvel of simplicity. The film is essentially a two-character play, with Clooney and Bullock both delivering convincing, pitch-perfect performances as decidedly different characters and personalities. In terms of acting, Bullock is asked to do the heavy lifting and she is – to my surprise- a revelation. I have never been her biggest fan, but she projects a soulful gravitas in emotionally exhausting scenes that most actors wouldn’t approach with the same measured restraint. For his part, Cuarón relies as much on quiet moments of intimate emotion and delicate, dreamlike visuals to wow viewers as he does those big, eye-popping set pieces. It is that balance of the intimate and the epic that gives “Gravity” it’s emotional weight and ultimately proves to be the story’s strongest ally. The script (co-written by Cuarón and his son Jonas) unfortunately often lacks the same degree of subtlety and originality as the images and action on screen, which is the only thing that prevents “Gravity” from rivaling Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” as the best movie about space ever made. Kubrick’s masterpiece is just as beautifully artistic – punctuated by a haunting visual aesthetic – but it’s also quiet, contemplative and profound. “Gravity” strives for profundity, but is all too eager to spell all of its themes out for the audience, and falls short as a result.
No matter. Though it has obvious ambitious beyond pure spectacle, “Gravity” is clearly a movie made to push the boundaries of movie-making. It’s less about dialog, storytelling, and narrative heft than the ability of film to amaze and inspire. You can’t help but ponder with giddy excitement how directors like Kubrick and Georges Méliès would employ the technological magic today’s directors are fortunate enough to have at their disposal. Cuarón, however, is as worthy an heir to their legend as we have today, a reputation he cements with this spectacular achievement. You won’t soon forget his exquisite imagery – the constant illumination of the ever-present Earth seemingly just out of reach of the desperate, stranded characters, as if to taunt them; the twisted silence that accompanies all the explosions and destruction because sound cannot exist in space, the balletic movements, the final harrowing shot – like “2001”, “Gravity” is haunting in the best sense of the term.
We live in a time when technology is so omnipresent and so radically evolving that it has become nearly impossible to be truly moved or awed by advances in filmmaking. If you see “Gravity” (and if I haven’t already make it clear, you should… now.. in 3-D and on the biggest screen possible – there would be absolutely no point in opting for the 2-D version of this film) take a moment to ponder the fact that what you are feeling is likely as close as you may ever come to a sense of true astonishment at the power of film – how technology, when used correctly and effectively, can create genuinely wondrous, immersive, mind-blowing cinema; which is precisely what movies started out striving to achieve.
For all of the technological advances proudly on display here, “Gravity” is cinema in its purest form.
4 Stars (Out of 4)