All words: Alan Pyke
Kinetic experiences at the multiplex are too rare. Imitations abound, sure, but no matter how explodey the explosions in The Expendables VII or how shakily illegible the fight scenes in the next Matt Damon vehicle, blockbuster audiences usually spill their popcorn out of laughter rather than because they involuntarily ducked as an on-screen object whizzed in their direction.
Gravity sets its sights way higher than a popcorn flick, and delivers the kind of panic-inducing breath-holding audience investment to which many flashier thrillers aspire. Director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También) makes full use of the sense-engulfing potential of 3D filmmaking and the IMAX screen – seeing this on the mere big screen would be suboptimal – to create a movie experience that’s more immersive than observational. You’re not watching disaster-struck astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) attempt to navigate a worst-case scenario so much as you’re riding along with them as they try to survive the chaotic aftermath of a satellite explosion a few hundred miles away from their spacewalk.
That word “chaotic” captures the feel of Gravity’s setpieces, but it does a disservice to the level of thought that went into them. There’s a precision to the way objects interact in zero gravity, an inexorable and potentially lethal logic. That precision cost Cuarón and his animation team four and a half years of their lives and quite a bit of sleep, and the consultations with physicists and astronauts come across on-screen. It also inflicted a certain discipline on the filmmaking, to the movie’s benefit. There is no need for grandeur in cinematography. Cuarón trusts the physics and keeps his shots simple, often locating the viewer in or adjacent to the perspective of one or another character. Why be clever when the planet is spinning past in the background? The simplicity of the shots reinforces the absolute geometry of the film’s world, which makes a moment so simple as a bolt spinning away from an astronaut’s glove into a high-stakes heart-clutching experience even from the safety of a plush chair with a built-in cupholder. It’s that confidence in Gravity’s concepts that will have you applying body english as you watch, leaning this way or that as if to will astronauts to safety.
Credit for the blood-freezing experience of watching Gravity doesn’t only go to Cuarón and his animators, though. Sandra Bullock’s work as Dr. Ryan Stone is strong enough to carry the film through its handful of heavy-handed moments, imbuing them with a calm and rugged humanity that serves as a crucial counterweight to the unfeeling chill of the world around her. Cuarón’s few swerves into obvious imagery (as when an exhausted Bullock floats into a fetal position as silhouetted tubing swirls umbilically around her) and tawdry dialogue (as when Clooney reminds her that her personal tragedies can be sources of strength rather than defeat) would be forgivable given the firm grip the movie’s action places on the viewer’s neck. But Bullock’s performance – at turns tender and strong, graceful and panicked – is so authentic that even those stiff moments don’t really need forgiveness. Her acting takes the starch out of them. You’ll root for her so hard your muscles sting the next morning.
Gravity probably has to be categorized as sci-fi, though it relies entirely on current technology and real space stations. The rebirth shots, the terrifying set-pieces, the themes of humans fighting for survival without much time keft: these are core sci-fi concerns. But setting genre precision aside and seeking to describe the movie as an experience, Gravity is a proper thriller. If you miss being so invested in outcomes and so uncertain of what’s about to happen that your muscles tense and you accidentally bump knees with the person in the seat next to yours, Gravity can scratch that itch.