Seven years is a long time to wait for a filmmaker as good as Alfonso Cuaron. The Mexican director’s visual craftsmanship and panache for potent social and political commentary were last displayed in the 2006 masterpiece “Children of Men.” His new film “Gravity” eschews the potent, dystopian themes that made his previous film so memorable, opting instead for a much simpler lost-in-space tale. The result is an intense, effortlessly entertaining and expertly crafted thriller, and a shining example of how groundbreaking technology can turn a decent space flick into the movie going experience of a lifetime.
The plot, as mentioned previously, is a lost-in-space tale, and it first it doesn’t seem any more complicated than that. Medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran spaceman Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are in space repairing an American satellite when they receive news that a Russian satellite has blown up, and the resulting debris causes them to become tethered from their satellite and left adrift in space. The rest of the film is a relatively straightforward gotta-get-home scenario.
The film’s magic comes from its perfect marriage of 3D technology and special effects, the finest example Hollywood has yet produced. “Avatar” received praise for its special effects-generated worlds, but “Gravity” manages the much more impressive feat of making space feel real. This is not science fiction. From the odd floating pen or photograph to the ice forming on the window of a space pod, every frame of the film is so perfectly crafted and often achingly beautiful that it almost defies the senses. In my opinion, IMAX 3D is not optional here. The film earns every cent of surcharge.
Then there are the action scenes. As the famous tagline from “Alien” goes, “in space, no one can hear you scream.” But we don’t need extraterrestrials to make us do that. Space is the perfect killer in its own right. It can be hot or cold, beautiful or devastating. It’s everywhere, and it can’t die. One of the great strengths of the film is how it presents space as a main character, an unstoppable antagonist, right up there with Hal 9000 or Darth Vader. But no robot or Sith lord was ever this relentless. The action is astonishing in its scope and devastation, and lots of dangerous stuff flying at the screen will keep audiences firmly planted on the edge of their seats. Some might even fall off.
But special effects don’t amount to much without great characters, and Cuaron has given us one of the best in Bullock’s Ryan Stone. The timid amateur turned stone cold survivalist is always a fascinating transformation, but Dr. Stone has a character arc so satisfying it makes that trope somehow feel fresh again. Bullock gives easily her most physical and emotional role to date, and her role as the film’s sympathetic everyman is a shoo-in for an Oscar nod. She keeps the film, for all its flights of fancy, firmly grounded. Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ripley might have to give up her crown as the Queen of space.
The film is relentlessly paced, and feels perfect at 90 minutes. It goes in, kicks ass and gets out, leaving you breathless and begging for more. It’s rare for a film to satisfy so deeply on every level. For my money, “Gravity” is one of the great modern triumphs of the Hollywood studio system, which is so content to churn out soulless action blockbusters. It’s not exactly original, but it takes familiar concepts and makes them feel fresh again. And the film’s clear message that life, even when it feels like a constant struggle, is ultimately worth living is essential in an age where our media is increasingly concerned with a high body count and our culture is de-emphasizing the value of human life. The final shot brings this message home, and is powerful in its beauty and simplicity; a vast improvement over “Children of Men’s” unsatisfying non-ending.
“Gravity” is that all-too-rare type of movie: it transcends what we previously thought possible. It reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place. Run, don’t walk. Then see it twice, trusting that if it takes Cuaron another seven years to make a movie this good, it will be worth the wait.