Sometimes great results arise out of considering a simple “what-if.” For director Alfonso Cuaron and his film “Gravity,” the idea seems to have been: “What if you made a cliffhanger … with no cliffs?”
Set in the freefall of space, “Gravity” is a heart-stoppingly suspenseful survival flick of man vs. atmosphere. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as astronauts Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski — he the grizzled vet, she the hesitant first-timer — in Earth orbit and outside their space shuttle doing some routine repair work. They’re enjoying their final space walk before returning to Earth when they get a sudden order from NASA to return to ship; a Russian missile strike on a satellite has sent a cloud of debris racing towards them — at 30,000 kph.
Things get hairy about 10 minutes in, and it doesn’t let up till the end; there’s no point in revealing anything further about the plot except to say it doesn’t involve aliens, clones or evil computers. Rather, Cuaron seeks to depict the terror of an accident in this unforgiving environment, where life is measured in the seconds of oxygen left on your tank and rescue is impossible.
Films that rely solely on their special effects are often a joyless experience, largely because the filmmakers who make those movies are creatively bankrupt. (“Hey, what if we just blew up NYC again?”) But in the case of “Gravity,” the film’s impact is tied innately to the sheer craft with which Cuaron immerses us in this experience of human vulnerability in space.
Take the 3-D. Since the promise glimpsed with “Avatar,” few films have delivered on it, with the vast majority being regular fantasy-action fare that is haphazardly converted to 3-D to be able to charge the higher ticket price, or worse, the type where you barely even notice it. “Gravity” is just about the best 3-D movie made to date: The depth of field perfectly conveys the vast emptiness of space. Beyond that, Cuaron isn’t afraid of using the in-your-face aspect of the technology either; he holds off until the absolutely perfect point and then throws the whole kit at you.
Then there’s the sound: “Gravity” uses sub-bass so low that it would make a dubstep fan flee in howling terror. When there’s an explosion in a space-station module, you’ll feel the seat shake like a magnitude 5 temblor. The cinematography is full of very long takes, allowing you to soak in the environment, and often contrasts the serene beauty of space — with the sun rising gorgeously over Earth’s horizon — with the sudden eruptions of pure chaos as the debris strikes.
It’s so beautiful, you think, it wouldn’t be a bad place to die. That’s the kind of despair that strikes Bullock’s astronaut as it all goes to hell, and it’s up to Clooney’s space cowboy to shake her out of it. There’s a little bit of melodrama involving the personal “issue” that she has to confront over the course of the film, but it also adds depth and meaning to the film, beyond just the thrills. However isolated you may feel -emotionally or physically — there’s a need to find a reason to live, and sometimes, a person who will give that to you. That simple, beautiful gesture gives “Gravity” the heart that so many SFX blockbusters lack today.
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