The master of the long take is finally ending a fittingly long absence, as the astounding new film Gravity delivers just about everything you could want or hope for from the return of Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. After a tumultuous four years in production, numerous cast changes, and an ambitious premise to explain both, Gravity’s entry into the awards season atmosphere is flaming red hot, with festival showings over the last month eliciting the kind of slack-jawed astonishment from viewers you’d expect from those who have actually been to outer space. With multiple critics claiming the movie presents a completely new type of filmmaking, it’s easy to think you’re being given a starry-eyed hard sell. And while no, Cuarón hasn’t necessarily reinvented the reel, what he has made is one of the most technically stunning, and visually mesmerizing film experiences to appear in a long, long time.
That’s what Gravity really is after all, an experience. With a cast of two, a thin plot, and a 90-minute running time, you could practically argue that the film is a chamber piece…it just so happens that those leads are two of the world’s most respected actors, and the chamber they find themselves in encompasses the never-ending expanse of space. The premise is made equal parts engaging and nerve-wracking for its simplicity: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as astronauts Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski, one a jittery first-timer, the other a seasoned space cowboy that has a soft spot for country music and bad pickup lines. When the last day of their in-orbit mission is catastrophically compromised, the two find themselves with limited time, options, and oxygen keeping them alive, as they drift further out into a frictionless void.
The conceit of the plot makes up the story in its entirety; think Apollo 13 by way of Open Water, but instead of sharks threatening to swallow you up, it’s the universe’s endless yawning maw. No viewer who’s seen a trailer for Gravity will be able to accuse it of delivering less than what is promised. Scenes of Bullock and Clooney spinning wildly out of control while weightless are plentiful, as are gut-churning shots of characters desperately trying to grab something that’s just out of reach. Over the course of the film, Stone’s personal history is explored the further through the trial by fire she progresses, but having characters at all is just a means to an end for Cuarón, that end being the look of dumbstruck awe from audiences that Gravity consistently inspires from open to close.
Even when tethered to a space station, or one another, emptiness surrounds the characters from all angles, allowing for directorial freedom that only someone like Cuarón could fully exploit. The grandiose opening tracking shot is 14 minutes of zero-G ballet, with people and objects floating and rotating passed one another in ways that would seem tricky enough to photograph on their own, and near impossible to capture seamlessly. Critics of Children of Men, Cuarón’s exceptional last film, have argued the director’s love of long takes is jarring when the rest of the picture is shot using more traditional methods. For Gravity, this presents no such issue, for space is vast, and patient. It’s only showing off if what you’re being shown doesn’t justify the virtuosity, and what Cuarón, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki put in front of your eyes for 90 minutes is never short of marvelous.
Planet Earth makes for the single most beautiful backdrop any filmmaker could ask for, whether caught in the reflection of a helmet, or looming in front of Stone and Kowalski like a terrestrial skyline, inviting and close, while also intimidating and distant. It’s that mix of wonderment and fear which makes Gravity such a powerful emotional rollercoaster. Like one of those 3D IMAX nature docs (just with better effects, themes, and actors), the film is simultaneously operatic in scope, but intimate and immersive. Rather than being distracting, frequent first-person sequences from Stone’s perspective provide heart-pounding viewpoints from which to view scenes of desperate clambering across shuttle shells, and deadly games of dodgeball with space debris hurtling passed, silent and deadly.
As is typical of this kind of spacefaring epic, rockets and spheres provide plenty of Freudian imagery too chew over, but the real poetry comes not from the objects and props themselves, but from seeing them in motion. It might seem a little insulting to the audience’s intelligence that opening title cards have to layout the hostile and alien mechanics of space, but this is what the story is truly about: people battling futilely against the foundations of a cold, and unforgiving universe. With each new obstacle Stone and Kowalski face in their fight for survival, it never feels like a screenwriter’s hands put them there – Newton’s laws and chaos theory did. Gravity‘s scope contains multitudes that few films could ever possibly achieve. Just as Earth’s incomprehensible size presents a tiny drop in the cosmic ocean, the fate of one person can feel like it embodies all the struggles of life.
Cuarón is exploring the space where physics and metaphysics, the extraterrestrial and the existential all intermingle, so as you might expect, trying to humanize all that by funneling it into Bullock’s character poses a bit of a challenge. To broach such weighty and dense themes over the short running time means dipping into moments of melodrama when the characters have room (and oxygen) to breath. Thankfully, there are few actresses better at elevating emotionally leaden dialogue than Bullock, who also proves terrific at conveying the brutal physical demands of space travel. Clooney is expectedly good as a wiseass charmer, but Bullock is the human heart at the center of this space opera. The heavens can barely be seen in a pair of devastating monologues Ryan delivers near the film’s close, and she’s so good as to make you not miss seeing them, even if just for a moment.
Most sensory stimulating pictures leave you questioning whether they’ll hold up once they’re playing on your home TV instead of at a multiplex, but Gravity doesn’t inspire cause for such concern. The technical craft on display is impeccable, with performances in front of the camera that are worthy of the effort put in behind it. All the same, Gravity deserves to be seen on a screen big enough to do justice to Cuarón’s incredible direction, with a soundsystem booming enough to invoke the full calamitous power of Steven Price’s score, and with a loved one at your side to join you on an unforgettable ride. Contrary to the opinion of the final opening title card, life in space isn’t impossible –just highly improbable, lonely, and dangerous. Better bring someone to hold onto.