Alfonso Cuaron has always been an ambitious and interesting filmmaker. I was first introduced to his work when I saw A LITTLE PRINCESS in the theater back in 1995. I was 18, so I was not the target audience, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t love the hell out of that movie. I also really liked his version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, which I feel doesn’t get much credit. I never did see his much acclaimed Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN. I think his HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN is arguably the best in the series, and finally, CHILDREN OF MEN was a cinematic triumph. It’s been 7 years since that film’s release. So why so long between pictures? Apparently, Cuaron has been working on GRAVITY for quite some time, with different actors coming and going. Also, the movie took over 2 years to complete, and now, after finally seeing it, I can completely understand why it would take that long.
The plot is about as simple as you can get. George Clooney is a veteran astronaut named Matt Kowalski, who is on his last mission. Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone who is on her very first mission. They are working on a Hubble telescope, or something like that, in the middle of space. Everything seems hunky dory until a bunch of debris from a blown up satellite is on their way. With their shuttle destroyed, Matt and Ryan end up becoming the only survivors stranded in space. They must make it to the nearest space station before their Oxygen runs out, but that’s the least of their problems. I won’t get into any more details than that.
Maybe I’m making it more complicated than it really is. It’s pretty much just Clooney and Bullock in space for 90 minutes, trying to survive. As you probably have noticed by now, this movie is getting tremendous hype and praise. Why? What’s the big deal? It’s just 2 people in space. What’s so special about that? Well… I’ll tell you what’s so special about it: Every single fucking frame of the movie! That’s what! I’m not going to beat around the bush. This film is a cinematic masterpiece in every way possible.
Technically, the film is absolutely mindblowing! Every single thing that is up on-screen has been meticulously planned out. Since most of the film takes place in actual outer space, obviously things were shot in a studio with lots of green screen work. But man, it looks so freakin’ real! I honestly am stumped as to how most of the film’s images were executed. It’s just that amazing. For example, the opening shot is a single take, lasting a little over 12 minutes. It’s probably one of the most impressive shots in film history. It begins with the astronauts working on the telescope, and ends with Ryan floating off into space after the accident. How the camera zipped up, over and around the actors as they float around in space had me mesmerized. This is what cinema can be!
And that’s just the first shot. The rest of the film is just as innovative. The average shot probably lasts around 2-3 minutes, which is a lot. Probably one of the most terrifying shots is a POV shot through Ryan’s helmet as she spins around through space. It could cause motion sickness to those sensitive to that sort of thing, but there is NO shaky cam. Every shot is smooth and fluid. In fact, it’s so smooth that it looks effortless. There are so many visually impressive sequences that I could go on for ever. Seriously, so many beautiful images throughout. One of my favorites would have to be when after getting inside a space station, Ryan takes off her space suit and then curls up in a fetal position as she is floating in mid-air. Just gorgeous.
Okay, so you know the movie looks fantastic! But how is the story? How are the characters? Well, like I said, the story is very simple. But that’s okay. Since the movie doesn’t have a convoluted plot, the movie can rely on its visuals to tell the story. It’s pretty great. The characters? You absolute care for them. The opening moments do a great job establishing Ryan and Matt. Matt is kind of a loudmouth, (but very charming) playboy type. Ryan is an introverted Scientist who is a single mom. Watching these 2 characters go through the wringer is about as thrilling as movies can get. Let’s be honest, all the greatest visual effects in the world don’t mean shit if you don’t care for the people involved. I was genuinely concerned for these two. And since it doesn’t have the feel of a mainstream flick, the outcome of the characters were, for me, uncertain. I didn’t know if they were going to make it out alive or not, and the suspense is nearly unbearable.
And the reason we care about the characters so much is because of the 2 leads. George Clooney is his usual charming and confident self. I really enjoyed his performance. But for me, this film belongs to Sandra Bullock. Now, I have had some history with her. I have rarely liked any of her films. Not that I don’t like her. It’s her choice of films that I hate. I can probably name all the movies that I like of hers on one hand. Now, she’s usually good, even in the bad films, but man does she make some stinkers. The movies I have liked her in were DEMOLITION MAN, SPEED, LAKE HOUSE, EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE and BLIND SIDE. That’s it. Well, until now. Now, she recently won her first Oscar for BLIND SIDE, which I thought was decent, but her performance here as Ryan Stone is easily and by far her best performance. She goes through all of the emotions. Fear, sorrow, despair, determination, and finally new-found confidence. It’s an incredibly layered performance. And a lot of her work is dialogue free. There are several wordless sequences where she has to act with her face, and Bullock is up to the task. Her work is just incredible! Also, Ed Harris is the voice of NASA, which is of course a nod to APOLLO 13 and THE RIGHT STUFF.
Now I get to talk about director Alfonso Cuaron. Holy shit! What this man has pulled off is nothing short of incredible. He puts the average filmmaker working today to shame. I’m talking about filmmakers who shoot movies in the typical fashion: Over-the-shoulder, Master Shots, Close-Ups…. and repeat. That kind of filmmaking is “TV filmmaking” as far as I’m concerned. In recent years, I have been very vocal about how bored I am with how most movies are made. There’s no magic to them. There’s no awe. Well, Cuaron just upped the ante. The way he shot this movie….. with the camera floating around freely….. and the way it moves, and how it moves, and how he was able to pull it off…. well, it’s just going to change the way movies are made. The visual effects team deserve every award they get for their achievements here. It’s definitely a game changer. How they were able to create an entire environment from scratch and make it 100% convincing is mindboggling.
Now, some folks have been saying that the weak point of the film is the script. Well, the dialogue isn’t Mamet, but nor is it trying to be. It’s simple. The dialogue isn’t very original, but that’s not the point. It’s trying to be natural and that works. Also, there are some science nerds who are complaining about the science in the movie, and well, I couldn’t give a hoot. Movies are entertainment. And that’s what GRAVITY achieves. 100% entertainment of the highest quality. So I don’t really care how far-fetched any of this stuff is. What I do care about is if a movie engages me, and GRAVITY did… on so many different levels. I laughed, I cried, I was on the edge of my seat….. in fact, my friend who I saw the screening with, pointed out that as soon as the title appeared on-screen, I was literally at the edge of my seat and I didn’t sit back until the words “Directed by Alfonso Cuaron” appeared. I was that riveted.
And oh yeah…. I should point out that the 3D in the film is used very well. Now, I don’t think you NEED to see it that way, cause it’s an excellent film without it, but if you want to see how 3D can be used well, then this is the movie to see it that way. The sound design also ratches up the tension to the ninth degree. And the score by Steven Price is creepy, eerie and thrilling.
So yeah… in case you couldn’t tell. I loved everything about this movie! It’s more than just Bullock floating alone in space. There’s so much more to it than that. It’s an “auteur” film that can definitely appeal to a wide audience. It’s a visual wonder to look at with a story so riveting, you might even forget that you’re watching a movie. Cuaron has made a cinematic landmark that features mindblowing effects, relatable characters, and a career best performance from Sandra Bullock. GRAVITY is easily the best film of the year so far! ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language.
– Running time: 1hr 30min.