My first viewing of Gravity ranks among my most gripping theatrical experiences. I saw the film in IMAX 3D, and found myself overwhelmed by the audiovisual fireworks director Alfonso Cuaron and his team had conjured. I dislike 3D as a general rule (it's usually a cheap gimmick designed to inflate ticket prices), but Gravity was one of the rare occasions where I found the technique genuinely immersive. As the camera switched from a third-person to a first-person point of view, I experienced the simultaneous wonder and terror of space as potentially deadly flying debris whizzed past. The IMAX speakers granted Steven Price's masterful, challenging score thunderous power, further enhancing the operatic thrill of the experience. The term "roller coaster ride" gets overused as a descriptor for big-screen blockbusters, but Gravity came awfully close to recreating that sort of dizzying physical experience.
Then, in the days, weeks and months that followed, I began to second-guess my feelings. The whole thing was really pretty oversimplified, wasn't it? The story had some unnecessary elements of emotional manipulation. The science was certainly a little suspect at times (as the brilliant Neil DeGrasse Tyson pedantically pointed out). George Clooney's character seemed a little underdeveloped, didn't he? The third act leaned a little too heavily on Hallmark sentiment, didn't it? I mean, sure, it was a great spectacle, but was it really anything more than that? Without the benefit of IMAX speakers and 3D glasses, wouldn't the whole thing feel a little run-of-the-mill? I effectively sold myself on the notion that the movie wouldn't really hold up as well with repeat viewings, but I did so without actually granting myself a repeat viewing. That was a mistake.
The film opens with a trio of astronauts - Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, Up in the Air), Shariff Dasari (Phaldut Sharma, Life on Mars) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side) - doing some minor service work on the Hubble Space Telescope. Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris, Apollo 13) warns that a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite has created some dangerous space debris, and the mission is aborted. Alas, the debris strikes both the telescope and the space shuttle Explorer, causing all manner of havoc and killing Dasari in the process. Stone is sent hurtling into space, and Kowalski scrambles to find a way to rescue her. Even if he's successful, the damage the Explorer has suffered ensures that the odds of making it home alive are pretty slim.
Gravity remains a remarkable film, and it achieves its goals with such seamless effort that it's easy to take them for granted. Cuaron, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, visual effects supervisor Tim Webber and hundreds of others push the medium forward on a technical level while simultaneously delivering an elegantly simple fable about the human spirit. The dialogue oftens sounds mundane in a familiar sort of way, as profane pleas and panicked prayers are whispered and shouted amidst all the chaos. However, the visual storytelling is far more complex, as an endless array of magnificently composed images and Bullock's precisely-choreographed body language convey feelings that can't be captured in monologues.
Bullock's part was originally intended for Angelina Jolie, but it's hard to imagine anyone delivering a performance as impressive as the one Bullock turns in. She sells the terror Stone is experiencing without losing the nuances of her character, which is no easy task. Every moment of Bullock's performance feels honest, and her everyman quality makes her an ideal fit for a film that ultimately seeks to examine the resilient nature of the human spirit. Clooney handles his role well enough (generating the sort of relaxed charm he seems capable of conjuring in his sleep), but the bulk of the film lies on Bullock's shoulders, and she capably ensures that we never lose sight of the tale's humanity amidst all of the dazzling special effects.
The film's pacing is admirably tight, particularly in contrast to the bulk of Hollywood blockbusters. It's rare to find a film of this scale clocking in at a mere 91 minutes, and Cuaron manages to deliver a film that feels efficient without feeling rushed. There are several moments of welcome stillness throughout the movie, as Cuaron seems to recognize that his scenes of intense chaos will have a bigger impact if he allows the intensity to ebb and flow. The same applies to the score by Steven Price, who contrasts ferociously intense action/horror music with understated, plaintive material. Interestingly, a new Blu-ray release of the film offers viewers the opportunity to watch a “space silent” version, which eliminates the Price score for the sake of providing a more “realistic” experience. It's an interesting idea, but that cut mostly demonstrates how essential the Price score is to the film's impact.
The plot eventually reveals a tragedy in Stone's past, and the first time I saw the film I felt that this revelation was a pointlessly manipulative element. This time, it clicked with me: Gravity is survival story, yes, but it's as much about emotional survival as it is about physical survival. There are moments in life so taxing that we may feel a temptation to simply give up. Even if we are capable of finding a way to survive, it's just as essential that we find a reason to survive. With visceral ferocity and tender simplicity, Gravity offers two simple truths: life is a struggle, and life is worth the struggle.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 91 minutes
Release Year: 2013