Format: Kerasotes 16 IMAX.
It’s not often that you walk out of a film thinking that you’ve seen something that could legitimately win all five major Oscars. It’s even rarer when the film in question not only could but should win every technical award as well. Sadly, Gravity probably won’t win every major award because Oscar hates science fiction. Gravity isn’t really a science fiction film; it’s a drama that takes place in space. The technology shown in the film isn’t futuristic. It’s current, real-world stuff. But since the film takes place miles above Earth’s atmosphere, it’s suddenly science fiction. It probably will win most of the technical awards and it will be nominated all to hell and back, but it probably won’t win.
I say this as someone who is ambivalent to the acting charms of both stars, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Both are fine actors, but both also have made a number of really bad film choices in the past. Here, aside from the shocking cinematography, they are all we have to carry the full weight of the film and both are perfectly cast.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) and career astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) are in the middle of a spacewalk. Kowalski is testing a new jetpack while Stone is making repairs on the Hubble deep space telescope. There are a few problems getting the Hubble to work again, but progress is continuing apace when a message comes in from Mission Control (voiced at the start of the film by Ed Harris, who makes a good Mission Control voice). Russia has detonated a defunct satellite with a missile. This has caused a cloud of debris traveling at high speed in orbit. The debris is wrecking other satellites, causing the damage to spread, and the shuttle lies directly in the path of the incoming cloud of shrapnel.
What follows is an exercise in vertigo. The wave of debris smashes into everything, sending Dr. Stone spinning off into space and killing everyone onboard the shuttle. Only Kowalski, thanks to his jet pack, manages to avoid being ripped to shreds. The entirety of the rest of the film, probably 70-75 minutes or so, is Stone and Kowalski doing everything they can to get back home.
Regular readers will (or at least should) know that I don’t pull out the potty mouth too often here. Use it constantly and it loses its power. So when I say that Gravity is holy-shit good, I mean it. It’s worth repeating: Gravity is holy-shit good.
There are a lot of reasons for this. I really couldn’t say which of these reasons is the most important or most compelling, so I’m going to go through them more or less as they come to me. It’s also worth noting here that as good as these elements of the film are, the sum is much greater than the parts.
I did say there wasn’t an order, but the first mention has to be the way the film was shot. I have no idea how Cuaron managed to get many of these shots. Certainly they are effects, but they are virtually flawless. There were moments when the 3D stopped working for me, but I attribute that more to myself than to the film. I regularly have problems with 3D movies and have to keep refocusing my eyes. Gravity’s 3D is better than most, so the occasional blurry spots I attribute to my own physiology rather than the film. But without the good and bad of 3D, there are still a number of shots here that I simply can’t explain. I’m sure in 20 years I will revisit this and see all of the seams, but right now, it is virtually flawless visually, and that says a lot for a film that takes place in zero- and micro-gravity environments.
This is true throughout the film. Those moments when the debris cloud rushes past us are obviously computer generated. I say “obviously” only because I know they weren’t actually filmed in space. There’s a sense of reality here that must be acknowledged. It all looks like the real thing.
George Clooney is a great presence here. As an experienced astronaut on his last mission (yes, a bit of a cliché, but still), he is a calming presence even in the worst situation. A knee-jerk reaction would be to suggest sexism in Clooney’s calm vs. Bullock’s panic, but I didn’t read it that way. This was experience over inexperience. It’s a critical difference because both her panic and her humanness is what allows Sandra Bullock to put the weight of this film on her shoulders and carry the whole damn thing. We might root for Matt Kowalski because he comes off as heroic, but we immediately sympathize with Ryan Stone because most of us are more like her than we are the tough, experienced commander. This is probably Sandra Bullock’s defining role, at least up until now. I don’t know that she can play a role better. That’s not disrespect—that’s a suggestion of just how good she is in this.
So let’s talk about the script, which in this case means talking not about Bullock’s performance, but her character. In a Hollywood that is increasingly gender-defined, it’s fantastic to have a film like this one that allows us to completely forget the gender identities and roles of the characters. Dr. Stone simply happens to be a woman. She’s not a woman trapped in space; instead, Stone is a person trapped in this situation. Her gender is less important than her eye color in how the story plays out. It would be conceivable to switch the genders of the two main characters and essentially make the same film, no other changes. That is the sign of a smart screenplay.
I’m fairly certain that among my regular readers I am the last person to see this. If by chance you haven’t seen Gravity, you should go. You should go this week. You should see this on the largest screen you can, and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) you should see it in 3D. (You were right, Nick.)
Why to watch Gravity: Because there is not a single bad thing about it.
Why not to watch: If you’re prone to vertigo, you will throw up.