Basic Plot: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a nervous medical engineer on her first trip to space. Together with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) they work on repairing the Hubble Telescope. Disaster strikes and they are forced to find a way home.
With the release of 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, I’m getting a massive wave of déjà vu. These two movies are the top contenders for Best Picture and they couldn’t be more different. One is an arduous historical drama and the other is a fast paced science thriller. This is just like how the patient Hurt Locker and the 3D bonanza Avatar fought for the same award back in 2010. Both pairs of films showcase how cinema has progressed so far. On the one side is the continued effort to depict violence as realistically as possible (Hurt Locker, 12 Years a Slave) and on the other side is our striving to enhance the physical viewing experience with digital effects and sound design (Avatar, Gravity). This is why I take Oscars seriously: because the ceremony acts as a milestone for our society. It shows future generations where we were, artistically, at that point. And I usually agree with Oscars, but I bring up the déjà vu because although I rooted for Hurt Locker back in 2010 and was glad to see it prevail, I have a strong feeling the science fiction movie will lose again, and this time I’m not happy about it.
Because Gravity is amazing.
I want to point out that for everyone who claims this movie is just another 3D dumpfest or just like Avatar or another poorly written flick that looks cool, I advise you to actually watch the film. Unlike the terribly written and shamefully acted Avatar, Gravity has excellent acting, a strong script, and of course, stunning graphics and cinematography that make Avatar and every 3D flick thus far look like a shoebox diorama.
I won’t harp on the Avatar thing anymore, but I’ll mention that most 3D, heavy CGI-dependent films involve a great deal of characters and explosions and other things going on. Yet what’s great about Gravity, and why critics are raving about it, is how it takes a restrained, stripped-down approach in more ways than one. Other than a few voices speaking through mics, there are only two characters in the entire film. Yet this is precisely what makes it so thrilling. When you’re following only two characters, you care more about what happens to them, and when danger arrives, you’re on the edge of your seat. All the action in this movie feels real and never takes too long or feels over the top. There is a great deal of patience in this film, but because the characters have specific obstacles and goals in mind, it never bores you.
I want to first address everyone who is criticizing this film for not giving the characters enough depth. First, this is a sci fi disaster movie, and these characters have just as much depth as necessary. And secondly, what exactly did you want? Flashbacks? Really? Because slow paced, fuzzy flashbacks are the worst parts of action movies (see Elysium) and without cutting away from the present scene at all, Gravity keeps you very aware of how serious this crisis is. There are no distractions, nothing to make you believe for a fleeting moment that you aren't in space. That's the entire point of the film. You're not being spoon fed back stories and motivations. You're never taken away from space. You're there, and all character development is done without disrupting that.
We learn about Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski through naturalistic dialogue. Kowalski, the veteran, tells stories of crazy nights to the guys at Houston, establishing him as the comfortable, down to earth, social and confident man that he is while Stone has to be prompted by Kowalski to share a bit about herself and her tragedies at home, which show why she acts timidly for the first half of the film. This is important to note because Gravity is a film that knows what it’s doing. As bombastic as the action scenes are, when it comes to the characters and story it takes things at the right pace: delicately, subtly, showing the slow progression of emotions in a time of crisis and gently revealing more about both characters. The actors are ideally cast as well. Clooney performs with his usual cool, but adds a little something he usually doesn't: age. His character is a veteran, and through the tone of his voice and his actual dialogue, I got a distinct cheery-older-man-swapping-stories-on-the-front-porch kind of vibe. It’s a fun character and Clooney nails it. Also, since he’s a more experienced astronaut, he is a main source of support for Stone when things go horribly wrong. And because the movie is so intense, when Clooney shows up all you want to do is hold onto him and have him lead you to safety.
Of course, this is mostly Sandra Bullock’s show, and although I've always thought her acting chops were overrated (Blind Side in particular) she manages to carry this film. She makes you believe in both her fear and then eventual happiness, and it’s worth noting how strenuous it is for an actor to make sure her physicality is believable in a green screen film, set in space. She had to ensure that her breathing, her voice, and motions, fit every part of the film. It’s her best performance to date.
So writing is clean and the acting is strong, but you came for the ride and boy do you ever get one here. Since there is no sound in space, all the explosions and debris, all the action sequences, are mute. Yet it still boasts some of the best action I’ve ever witnessed. Intense music acts in place of actual explosion sounds, and Bullock’s voice helps get you in the right state of panic, yet this would all be nothing if the action itself didn’t look convincing. Luckily, everything in space seems believable, the graceful swooping of the camera puts you right in the middle of it all, the incredible crescendo of music makes every muscle tense, and when stuff get shredded, it’s awesome. It’s like Cuaron blended all the finesse of a ballet and all the ferocity of a firefight together. There are two big action scenes in this movie: the initial one that sets the plot in motion, and the second that raises the stakes, and the second scene involves Stone trying to disentangle a pod while, unbeknownst to her, there is a massive collision behind her that sends glittering bits of debris in every direction. It was so gorgeous and at the same time so badass that at the time all my mind was saying was “Damn!” over and over again. It was one of those moments that I wanted everyone to see, and when it was over all I wanted was to see it again.
Gravity is mind blowing. I can’t describe the action or the cinematography any further. When you see it, you’ll go for the action and the effects. They’re terrific and you don’t even need 3D (although the 3D is stunning) but what will be nice for you is that the acting, writing and music are all solid as well. It’s not often you get a popcorn flick like this that actually shows some care to its product other than the effects, but Cuaron’s movies have always had a gentleness to them (Children of Men, Little Princess) and this may be the first ever 3D disaster movie that could be considered an art film. And hopefully it won’t be the last.
Do I have problems with the movie? There’s a bit where Stone is talking to a stranger on the radio that felt a bit silly. Stone also becomes confident and resolved a tad too quickly toward the end, but these are minor issues. Gravity is a short, careful, spectacular film that didn’t need two hours to tell a story, that didn’t need aliens to make us scared of space, that didn’t sacrifice writing for CGI, and that absolutely blew me away. It’s my top pick for 2013. Whether that means anything to you or not, go see it.
Best Way to Watch: On a big screen