< (To read Chris Bumbray’s review from TIFF 2013, click here!)
PLOT: Astronauts on a routine space mission find their lives imperiled when the debris of a destroyed satellite obliterates their shuttle - and almost any chance of survival.
REVIEW: It's beautiful, it's fun, it's breath-taking, but what GRAVITY really is more than anything else is a pure adrenaline rush. It's a total cliche to call a movie a "roller coaster ride" because no movie ever actually packs in the three-minutes-and-out surge of adrenaline that a roller coaster ride does, and so it might be inaccurate to give GRAVITY that label too. But, if ever there were a movie that delivered that alternating thrill of fear and grab-on-to-anything exhilaration that comes with dipping and flying wildly on a seemingly unstable track, than GRAVITY is certainly it. It's like the longest, most satisfying Disney theme park ride you've ever experienced.
And this is not a bad thing, nor is it meant to suggest that GRAVITY is intended only as a pulse-pounding hair-raiser. Director Alfonso Cuaron often immerses us in the serene beauty of space, allowing us plenty of time to appreciate this colorful globe we reside on and the strange, silent universe beyond. Most science-fiction films never really contemplate our planet from afar, nor do they stop to ruminate on the utterly fascinating complexities of outer space; Cuaron uses his film as an opportunity to allow us to reflect on just how amazing this all is, the way we might have when we were kids. Call it a love letter to the great void above.
But it's clearly Cuaron's goal to freak us right the hell out and GRAVITY, for all its poignancy, works best when it's beating your nerve-endings to a pulp. You want to literally gasp and wince and allow a movie to repeatedly work on your most primitive impulses? Then GRAVITY does it in spades. Cuaron orchestrates action better than, well, just about anyone that I can think of right now. Interestingly, the one movie I kept thinking of while sitting pinned back to my seat was THE FRENCH CONNECTION. You know the legendary sequence where Popeye Doyle careens heedlessly through Brooklyn to catch an elevated train? The way William Friedkin makes you feel as if your in that car, and every sharp turn and close call is like a shock of electricity to your body - that's how Cuaron's best sequences of space chaos play in GRAVITY, only magnified tenfold.
The story is pure narrative thrust, a real-time nightmare of Murphy's Law among the stars. (Cuaron and his screenwriter and son Jonas have blessedly made the script a very simple exercise.) What I can tell you is that we only have two main characters: Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), an introverted medical engineer from the midwest still recovering from a tragedy back on Earth, and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), a retiring astronaut making his "one last trip" into space. For her part, this is Stone's first foray into the great beyond, tasked with installing a revolutionary tracking system aboard a floating space station. (The movie never even really bothers to get into the particulars of this invention, and that's okay.) There are other astronauts at work, but GRAVITY is solely interested in these two, painting a modest picture of a meek, emotionally unprepared woman and her cocky, long-winded male colleague. Cuaron lets us breath in the moment of watching these people work, glide and dance around weightlessly, a very peaceful and relaxing scene that could last the entire movie; we'd leave feeling rather enriched.
But then he quite literally takes your breath away. About ten minutes in (maybe, I wasn't looking at my watch - ever), our astronauts get news of a destroyed Russian satellite headed their way. The debris is massive, and actually kicking around other satellites, meaning not just one wave of fiery metal is closing in on them, but many. The crew is meant to abort their mission immediately and head back to their ship, but before they can even do that they and everything around them is pelted with piece after piece of deadly rubble, their station quickly cut to pieces and their hopes of survival almost thoroughly vanished.
But survive they do, and here's where I stop even bothering to describe the film, because what happens next has to be seen to be believed. Let's just say our protagonists jump from one cataclysm to another; putting out one fire - so to speak - just to watch two more pop up. Every passing minute seems to include a near-death experience. Cuaron thrusts us so completely into this on-going crisis that it sometimes seems unfair; at the risk of sounding pretentious, the real gravity here is the way the director pulls us toward the screen, like an expert puppet master not only toying with his characters, but us as well.
It may be obvious to those who have paid attention to the marketing campaign thus far, but Bullock is the true lead of the film, and it's a vivid, emotionally stripped down performance without a hint of vanity or affectation. Bullock is put through the ringer here, and even though she's often surrounded by astounding visual effects (no joke: astounding), her graduation from terrified space-rookie to sturdy survivor is what engages us completely because we're living this catastrophe through her eyes - sometimes literally. And while the actress is best known for her effortless charm and comedic timing, she's best here during moments of repose, thinking back on a sad life and looking forward at a potentially short future.
But the real stars here are Cuaron, his visual effects team and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who beautifully constructs a series of long, ever-moving takes that last minutes on end. The collaboration between these entities is tangible, and the result is a technical and visionary marvel. Let me take a brief moment to state the obvious: GRAVITY is meant to be seen on a big screen - preferably an IMAX screen - and in 3D. Yes, this is 3D done the right way; more so than even AVATAR it's probably the best ever usage of the format.
Is it perfect? Not quite, although it seems silly to nitpick at a movie this good. Cuaron and son's dialogue is a little stale, intended only to pass the time and state the obvious. And while filled with emotion, the film's final moments are a bit too bombastic and symbolism-heavy for my liking; Cuaron earns a big finish, but he goes just a tad overboard, the music swelling to a fever pitch and the majesty of what we've just seen is hammered home with a mallet. But hell, no one can ever accuse the director of mastering the art of subtlety; subtlety doesn't give us a splendid adventure such as GRAVITY.