Movies like Gravity are the types of films routine visitors to the multiplex live for. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s first film in seven years feels fresh and exciting by ironically staying as true to the image as possible. From the opening seconds, Cuarón makes an effort to show his devotion to realism by offering a title card explaining sound and temperature in space, debunking myths perpetuated by sci-fi films like Star Wars and their booming interstellar explosions. But most of all, he relies on the image. His effort to avoid editing is so extreme viewers will be hard pressed to find a splice within the film’s first 20 minutes.
His aversion to cutting images is not just a gimmick. It’s an effort to enhance the feeling of reality to what many viewers so easily resign to the “that’s so fake” world of science-fiction. Though Cuarón tries to maintain the illusion of “realism” by avoiding splices as much as possible, far be it from this evolved filmmaker to allow the images to drone on. Limber camera work consistently offers awe-inspiring vistas of the openness of space and keeps the film dynamic even without pace-dictating cuts. It’s also not long into the film when he sends a shower of space debris hurtling at the astronauts working on the Hubble Telescope. Then things get real exciting.
Cuarón’s dazzling work with uncut action sequences in his criminally underrated previous film Children of Men (2006) reaches new heights with this intimate thriller in space where two astronauts in this freak accident in space struggle to make it back to earth alive. Only two actors appear on screen: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who bring the sincerity to the dialogue, written by the director and his son Jonás Cuarón, which can feel a tad heavy-handed and sentimental when it’s not efficient and quippy. The script’s simplicity helps in maintaining the film’s brisk pace, however, and despite many solitary moments with one of these characters, it never dwells too long in monologue mode.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has almost consistently worked with Cuarón from his first feature, A Little Princess, and has gone on to work with Terrence Malick on his latest films, enhances the visuals like no one else. Shadow and light shift from ominous to becalmed in moments. There’s also something to be said about the score by Steven Price, who pushes the limits of bombast to minimalist heights of sensation when that killer space debris passes through. It’s like the theme from Jaws stripped to sensation. Speaking of the senses, the sound design also deserves mention, which, at appropriate times, feels like what life underwater might sound like. Cuarón has not forgotten any detail.
Despite the efforts of these filmmakers, distractions do arise, however. The star power of the two leads somehow overshadows their humble roles as astronauts. Bullock carries the baggage of a once-it-girl in movies like Speed and While You Were Sleeping. Hollywood’s pressure for its preference for young women shows clearly on her face (read: plastic surgery). Though Clooney has successfully escaped his “Sexiest Man Alive” aura in films like the Descendants, Syriana and even the American (my review), the script gives him little room to maneuver as anything more than the sly rogue he’s so well at playing.
Bullock is given the meatier role as a mournful woman who lost her young daughter in a freak accident. As she fights for survival in one Rube Goldberg action sequence after another, she shows a delicate sense for motion in space. She does a lot of great work snatching at the air during what amounts to one epic free-fall. But she also delivers a heartfelt performance that improves the dialogue, capturing a sort of will to live in what often feels like a hopeless situation.
Some may think the premise that starts the catastrophic domino effect in space contrived. As Gravity tries so hard to stay as true to science fact, it will in turn beg for more scrutiny. For every smart effort like floating fireballs and tear drops, a threat to break suspension of disbelief arises. Get over it and go with it. It’s a movie. Yes, this film is nothing but a painstakingly polished thrill ride at the movies, but dang it if it’s not brilliantly constructed to crush the cynic in us, from eggheads looking to pick apart the inconsistencies with real-life rules of space to the cinephiles who dare the screen to make them cling to their arm rests.
Gravity is rated PG-13 (it’s intense and characters react appropriately with a few f-bombs) and runs 90 minutes. You can catch it at any multiplex right now in 3-D, HD, 35mm and IMAX. Warner Bros. invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.