It has been a long time since I have physically groped the edge of my seat with my two sweaty palms, anxiously squeezing as if the pressure there would provide some kind of mental stress release from what I am seeing on-screen. Now, if you are interested in experiencing complete aloneness, and I truly mean limitless solitude, “Gravity” is a film for you.
Director Alfonso Cuarón paints for us the story of a medical engineer and an astronaut who unfortunately incur the wrath of a space debris maelstrom. They are finishing work on a space station, hovering above who knows where, when suddenly all hell breaks loose. The remainder of the tale follows, for the most part, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). She works alongside astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who provides much-needed patience and comic relief from time to time. There are a few other characters, but as you can judge from the trailer, we probably don’t see them for long. Ed Harris joins us as the voiceover of Mission Control, back on earth. It’s a nod to Apollo 13, most likely, where Harris plays the same role.
Again, from the trailers, you could possibly deduce what “Gravity” is about. If you guessed survival in space, despite countless odds that are against you, then you would be correct. Poor Ryan Stone. She faces obstacle after obstacle to find her way to safety. The problem is, as soon as she finds the solution to one problem, a new one presents itself. There isn’t any break in the action during “Gravity”. This is one of the many strong points of the film. Never have we seen the forces of nature vying for the life of a character as we see them now. This is a perfect example of ever-increasing stakes for our hero. Ryan must detach herself from the spinning solar panel. As soon as that is done, she has to figure out how to stop spinning herself. Once she’s more stable, she has to preserve oxygen in her spacesuit. While she’s doing that, she has to find some way to slow down enough to grab ahold of something on the rotating space shuttle she is nearing. You can only imagine there is an even longer list of challenges to overcome once she gets on the space shuttle.
This is only a very small example of the stress-inducing experience “Gravity” is. To add to the realism of the situation, Cuarón worked carefully with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who you may know from their pairing in “Children of Men”. Yes, Cuarón has little to no sympathy for his audience, and many of the shots in “Gravity” are very long tracking shots. Instead of employing fast cuts to emphasize the speed and danger of the circumstance, Cuarón uses lengthy shots that help us to see the action on-screen as if it was in real-time. This is no easy task, as the cautionary visuals which unfold before our eyes are breathtaking, both in the sense of beauty and danger. Ryan confirms what we see by saying, “I hate space.”
Composer Steven Price has put together what might be (in my opinion, of course) one of the most fitting film soundtracks since Ennio Morricone’s “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly”. Maybe not the best example, but hopefully you get the idea. The eeriness of the bass thumps and stunted stringed instruments never leave us at ease, but as the action slowly builds, literally in the background, we know the inevitable suspense is coming. It’s a soundtrack that instantly becomes familiar to you from the title screen on out. I should mention also the sound design and how incredibly well done it is. They say that you can’t hear anything in space, and we become aware of that very quickly. The subtle bumps and thumps we do hear are from the vibrations of Ryan’s spacesuit, and by the time the camera physically goes inside her suit to a first-person view, we are already trembling at the hopelessness of her situation.
“Gravity” is perhaps a little less of a film, and more of an experience. It is something that you simply must experience, and maybe not just once. It might be worth a few visits, and for those of you who are as unfortunate to have read this review after “Gravity” has left theaters, I do pity you. This is something that you must see in theaters, and even… dare I say it… In 3D!
It is a rare occasion when you are looking forward to starting a countdown that will detonate part of your survival craft. These are the kinds of dreadful feelings you experience while watching “Gravity” and it is for these reasons and more that I believe “Gravity” to be the movie-going event of the year so far. So I might as well say it. “Gravity” is the best film of the year to be released as of this writing. So, congratulations Cuarón and may the Academy smile favorably upon you.