NOTE: This review was originally published on September 9 after I saw Gravity at the Toronto International Film Festival. I am republishing it today as it hits theaters this weekend.
A rumble slowly begins to build as text across the screen sets the stage for Alfonso Cuaron‘s Gravity, a story that will take us 600 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, into the blackness of space. The rumble grows louder… No oxygen. The rumble grows louder, into a dull roar… Below freezing temperatures. The roar grows louder still… Life in space is impossible. And louder, until… Nothing.
The noise disappears into deafening silence. A shot of Earth fills the screen and astronaut chatter echoes through the theater as the space shuttle Explorer slowly comes into view. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and a third astronaut, Shariff (Paul Sharma), banter back and forth with Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris as an homage to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13). Clooney’s dialogue here is slightly obnoxious and not as funny as I think it’s intended to be while Shariff bounces around like a child at the end of his tether.
Stone is on her very first mission to space and it’s about to become a bumpy one. A Russian satellite was intentionally destroyed, but the unintended collateral damage caused by its debris is rushing toward the Explorer and they have only a matter of seconds to abort the mission and get out of its path. They’re too late.
Over the course of this continuous 13-minute opening sequence without a single visible edit, the scene turns to horror as shards of debris rip apart the shuttle, Shariff is killed and Stone is sent hurtling into outer space with only the voice of Kowalsky to settle her down and calm her nerves, which is necessary because she’s chewing through oxygen at a rapid rate.
What follows is a harrowing attempt to survive in an environment not meant for survival, and we’ve only scratched the surface of this 90 minute thriller.
Gravity is an interesting film in that its highs are so high it forces you to forget about its more underwhelming lows. It’s a movie to be experienced in theaters if there ever was one, but for all the moments of intensity, the in-between, character building segments don’t deliver nearly as well, though without them the themes and metaphors would be lost. What to do?
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) and co-written with his son Jonas, Gravity is a film unlike any you’ve seen before and yet for all its technical brilliance there are still areas where Cuaron simply can’t seem to get out of the way.
For example, for as much as I love Steven Price‘s score, it’s entirely unnecessary after the opening sequence hammered home the effectiveness of silence. The sound artists have the audio covered as evidenced early by the low, barely audible hum of bolts being unscrewed heard over the astronauts’ dialogue, and even more so as a field of satellite debris is hurtling through space at tens of thousands of miles per hour without a sound, remaining silent as they smash into the shuttle. Your heart begins to race. The entire audience is tense and you can feel it. What isn’t needed is artificial sound and yet, Cuaron goes back to it time and again.
The dialogue is also a sore spot. At one point Stone mentions how Kowalsky simply won’t shut up. I felt the same way and am surprised Cuaron did not. While I certainly could have watched this film without any dialogue whatsoever, cutting the number of spoken words by half would have definitely improved the overall project.
That said, for every slight misstep the film faces, the moments of tension are so absolutely harrowing you can almost feel your muscles tighten. While it’s essentially a film that builds to one perilous scene after another, these scenes are so well done it doesn’t really matter. However, the final scene is one that will probably have a lot of audience members throwing their hands in the air and saying, “Really?” Not because it’s unrealistic, but more so because it’s just one more obstacle in the way of survival that doesn’t seem entirely necessary.
This final scene, however, is one of the most thematic scenes in the entire film, playing off the foreboding opening text in combination with the film’s title as questions also come to light. If space can’t support life should we really be out there? At the same time, the importance of life and accepting your situation, facing your fears and fighting against the odds is just as prevalent. What is life if you runaway and hide when facing tough challenges? It’s those moments where all hope seems lost and we decide to fight that define our character.
Behind the camera, Cuaron has assembled a talented team to execute his vision. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki‘s camerawork is extraordinary as are the film’s effects, which have me wondering just how much of the movie is live action and how much is CG. For all I can tell 75% of it may have been entirely computer generated, which would explain the 2+ years it took to bring the film to theaters. Either way, the mixture of live-action and CG is seamless.
All told, the good outweighs the bad, but there are definite flaws preventing it from reaching the highest of levels from a story standpoint. The post-conversion 3D is serviceable, though I would still prefer to see it in 2D. Seeing it on the largest screen you can find, however, is a must. Gravity is as much a cinematic experience as it is a story, if not more so, and it’s one you’re going to want to seek out.