Silver Screen: Gravity ****1/2
Gravity may or may not be a great movie, but it’s certainly a great theatrical experience. That’s not a dig, but rather an acknowledgement of the film’s strengths: its scope, its scale, its fluidity, its visual depth. Gravity is a nexus of storytelling, cinematography, and technology that could not even have existed ten years ago. It’s a marvel. Just maybe not a great movie.
Gravity is microcosmic storytelling in the most macroscopic setting conceivable. It’s an intimate $100 million movie featuring only three onscreen actors, and its opening shot runs nearly twenty-minutes long. With a blessed lack of exposition and perfunctory setup, writer/director Alfonso Cuarón places us directly into the action of the story.
First-time astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is still contending with her nerves during her first spacewalk, during which she and old-school space cowboy Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. In this long opening shot, Cuarón manages to capture both the awe and excitement of space travel and the existential terror of the infinite void. Matt, on his final mission, motors loops with his propulsion pack while Ryan clings to the safety of the telescope. The same vastness he swims in threatens to swallow her.
Only minutes in, after some chatter from mission control (voiced by Ed Harris, familiarly) about the unannounced demolition of a Russian satellite, there’s trouble. Debris from the wreck has caused a chain reaction of destruction that puts the exploded satellite fragments on a collision course with our astronauts. There’s no real hurrying at zero-gravity, and the suspense of their attempted escape is only heightened by its maddening slowness.
There’s an inevitable impact, the force of which sends Ryan, untethered, spinning helplessly into the void. For the remaining seventy or so minutes, Matt and Ryan must try to find a way to reunite and get back into the safety of a vessel, and home to Earth.
Gravity is thrilling for the full duration of its ninety-minute running time. There aren’t more than a few scattered minutes to relax and take a deep breath throughout, and yet it’s unhurried and well-paced. Cuarón’s movie is elegantly structured and deceptively simple, and in fact it only stumbles when it briefly diverts from the path. Ryan’s fairly generic backstory brings unnecessary pathos and, eventually, superfluous religious overtones to a tale that was powerful in part because it required so little context; we need no external reasons to root for these astronauts, and doling out a couple minutes of character background adds little to the heroism of their struggle for survival. This is an existential, elemental movie-- the details are moot.
In every other way, Cuarón nails it. Both Bullock and Clooney do exemplary work, but the marquee attraction is Cuarón with his phenomenally realistic space effects and hypnotically swooping camera. This is as much a movie about space as about the two people in it, even if ultimately the immensity of the solar system is counterintuitively used to reaffirm a kind of prideful humanism.
Gravity should absolutely be seen in 3D. Typically 3D muddies and blurs most live-action movies. The technology only really seems to add an extra dimension to otherwise 2D computer animation-- elsewhere it mostly darkens images and blurs action. Gravity becomes only the second movie, after James Cameron’s Avatar, that derives something significant from those added layers; likely it has something to do with how both Cameron and Cuarón were more interested in expanding the depth of the backgrounds rather than trying to push images off the screen. Here it’s an essential component in conveying the overwhelming enormity of space.
But this strength is also a limitation, and so the question lingers: How well will all this translate to a smaller 2D screen at home? Even on a larger 3D TV, will Gravity still be a great movie, or just a very good one? Regardless, it’s certainly a tremendous, unique movie-theater experience, one not to be missed.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.