Gravity is without question the most visceral experience I’ve had in a theater this year. I say this without hesitation and in no uncertain terms. I might even be playing it down a little bit since I can’t recall the last time a film had this kind of an effect on me. Having seen the trailers and clips I had a handle on what the content would be but I was utterly wrong about how I would ultimately process the material. Yes, it’s a “ride” in the summer movie sense of the word, but it’s also deeply moving – something I wasn’t at all expecting. It’s also downright horrifying*.
Writer/director/editor Alfonso Cuarón (Children Of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban) has made the most intense space action film I’ve ever seen by wisely keeping the focus on just two people. Gravity tracks its leads through the some of most insanely tense and well orchestrated set pieces I can remember, placing us in their shoes (and helmets) the entire way. With long chunks of the film unfolding in a single take, we flow from one high to the next without ever feeling removed from the action. There’s an overarching sense of escalation to everything here and Cuarón makes sure you know exactly where everything is and exactly how difficult the protagonist’s goals (in this case, survival) are to achieve.
If this was all the film had to offer, we’d still be in for a good time. But what really elevates Gravity above being an admirable technical exercise is its human element. Cuarón has never shied away from heart in his films, and that’s what makes Gravity more than just a late-period Zemeckis nod. George Clooney is great as Matt Kowalsky, the astronaut who guides our protagonist through her ordeal. He’s the perfect mix of chumminess and authority. He’s also absolutely essential in selling some of the film’s more expository dialogue in a manner that doesn’t feel too on the nose. But, as great as Clooney is, Sandra Bullock is a revelation as Dr. Ryan Stone, a newbie to space who quickly finds herself out of her (and anyone else’s) element.
Bullock has always been good, but Cuarón draws an intensity out of her that we’ve never seen before. And it’s not just a one-note heightening we’re talking about here, she’s not just playing against type or playing “hard” or “vulnerable,” all of her tools are razor sharp. She’s required to be strong, weak, sick, brave, resigned and determined in equal measure and she pulls it all off without ever letting you forget who her character is or the emotional geography of where she’s operating from. There’s a mid-film reveal about her past that might have landed with a manipulative thud in the hands of a lesser performer, but Bullock refuses to let it become a cloying piece of shorthand and runs with it in a way that elevates her character’s struggle.
Beyond being inspiring, terrifying and expertly accomplished, Gravity is profoundly empathetic and human. While none of us will ever experience anything remotely resembling what Bullock’s character faces in the film, we all struggle to survive in our own ways and the movie succeeds in inviting us to view someone else’s struggle in such a personal manner that it becomes impossible to not project onto it. To that end, Cuarón has made the rare space epic that almost everyone will be able relate to. Even if you can’t invest in the film on that level, there’s no way Gravity will fail to entertain you with its more surface-y aspects.
*You might be wondering why you’re reading a review of Gravity on this site. Even though it isn’t horror it goes well beyond being “of interest” to fans – it has moments of terror and suspense that far outstrip any horror film I’ve seen this year. See this film on the biggest screen you can find and seek out the 3D version (something I rarely recommend) if at all possible.