Space is a difficult for film. It’s vast, quiet, empty, and a lot of things that most movies generally avoid. When a movie does decide to take place in space—and not even just spaceships, but space itself—then there are a lot of difficulties to be met along the way. Still, if it’s done well, you can get something magical on your hands, something that is so-well made that it seems as if it were crafted in a void, apart from all the flaws that plague space dramas, and then delivered to us.
Strangely, this movie has been billed as science fiction, which I guess is true in the literal sense, but doesn’t fit at all. But like a lot of great science-fiction, it also largely overlaps with other genres. For Gravity, the genre is Survival—a story-type that does not particularly interest me, but that is done here to greater effect than I thought possible. The Russian government causes a destructive chain-reaction that hurtles debris at the Hubble Space Telescope, on which Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are working. They both must work to survive the following destruction and attempt to maybe—somehow—get home.
The plot is really bare-bones here—not in a bad way—but it’s effective like nothing I’ve ever seen. I can’t recall the last time I felt so tense and stressed during a movie; generally survival stories and other genres can elicit some excitement, but not such an entrenching dread like Gravity accomplishes. I truly felt Dr. Stone’s fear, the horror that lurks behind every possible outcome of her next step. No one ever states exactly what will happen should anything more go wrong, but we all know what’s at stake. We can feel it.
In fact, one of this movie’s greatest skills is how it plays with our senses. The sound editing is impeccable, and while I was initially hoping there would be no soundtrack, the music is incorporated extremely well. The actual editing of in-movie noises is really well-done, too, playing with the fact that sound cannot travel through space. The camera movements make us feel the same sensations as Stone and Kowalski when they hurtle through space. Everything is done to immerse us in the environment, and I don’t know if I’ve felt a movie this much since The Piano. This is all thanks to the editor, cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki), special effects folks, and director, Alfonso Cuaron. Space in Gravity is at once empty and omnipresent.
Actually, while I’m passing around praise, let me just say that every single person involved in this movie deserves a lot of it. The screenplay, written by Cuaron and his son, Jonas Cuaron, has realistic dialogue and often dips into humor, even though the characters are going through what could best be described as abject terror. The cinematography is seriously incredible (out of this wor—NO!), and the story is interesting enough not to be completely dull but simple enough not to eclipse the struggle of the characters. The acting is also great—Clooney plays Clooney, to great effect, and Bullock plays her character with a beautiful mix of terror, struggle, strength, and gravitas. Admittedly, I do think that there is something barring Bullock’s performance from perfection, but even then she falls just short of masterful and still lands somewhere along adjectives like “amazing” and “absolutely fantastic.”
Bullock’s performance does help to illuminate the fantastic characterization of Dr. Stone. Her character is engaging, has her own story that we care about, often has to deal with hysteria-inducing situations, and is overall incredibly well-developed. If anyone is looking for a movie with a fantastic female lead, they need look no further. She’s not a strong female character because she is masculine, and her story does not depend entirely on her existence in relation to men (which is not always an inherent flaw, but constitutes an unreasonable majority of “strong” female characters). She’s just a well-written character who is a woman, not defined by her gender and sex, but also not entirely separate from it. One of the major backstory elements adds great depth to her character, and when paired with beautiful birth and womb imagery, the effect resonates far beyond the expected strengths of good drama.
I really can’t say enough good stuff about Gravity. I am still spinning with wonder from the ride this movie took me on. Finding faults, which I’m sure is possible, feels like looking for the smallest ink blot on some page in a masterfully-bound book. I’m sure that people will find things to hiply decree massive flaws with this movie, but I can’t help but wonder how superfluous the criticisms will be. In fact, this movie not only achieves borderline perfection in being an engaging drama, but goes beyond the confines of its story.
If you are on the fence about this movie, or are looking for a fantastic movie to see, you should go check out Gravity while you have the opportunity to see it in theaters. It’s an experience, something that transcends any genres that it might fit into, and transcends expectations of big-budget cinema.