Most moviegoers are familiar with the phrase "in space, no one can hear you scream" -- to this day, probably my favorite tagline for a film. Often used and imitated but never quite utilized for its literal meaning, Gravity is the first film that has ever made me really feel it, and is not only an early contender for the best film of 2013, but is the best space movie since Sigourney strapped on the power loader suit in Aliens over 25 years ago.
The story and the characters are simple and direct. Without spoiling anything, astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are faced with unexpected tragedy while floating in space, and have to fight to survive. And herein lies the paradoxical nature of this film: this is not an in depth character study or an exercise in meticulously crafting a plot, yet in its deceptively simplistic state it manages to teach an audience more about both filmmaking and human nature than anything I've seen in a very long time.
Here's a sentence I never thought I would find myself typing: Sandra Bullock is fantastic. I always found her to be a likeable enough but mediocre actress who made mediocre films and somehow achieved success far beyond where her talent or abilities should have taken her. However, after watching her struggle for 90 minutes, often as the only character on screen, I have to officially amend my opinion. With the right director (which Alfonso Cuarón indisputably is, at least here) she can and does command attention. This is not an easy role -- as one of only two characters in the film, most of her performance is relegated to reacting to high levels of nearly unimaginable stress in realistic ways (a very difficult task) while simultaneously having to bring us into her inner thoughts and make us root for her without having much opportunity to vocalize any exposition. I didn't think she'd be able to pull this off, but she exceeded even my most optimistic expectations. If her first Oscar was a travesty (I mean, really, come on) I would forgive it somewhat if she got a second one for this.
While Bullock does the bulk of the heavy lifting here, she is occasionally supported by George Clooney. Clooney is one of the most insufferable people in Hollywood and possibly my least favorite actor, so the fact that I was able to tolerate him here is a large credit to how strong this film is. Kowalski's playfulness and self assurance serves as an interesting counterpoint to Stone's seriousness, and Clooney is likeable enough even if the role isn't much of a stretch for him.
While this is not exactly a character piece, somehow the use of characters as archetypes -- usually something I complain about in more action-based movies -- works very well here. Gravity manages to constantly work along two parallel levels -- its decision to paint the characters in broad strokes serves to invite the audience in and bring the story up beyond a simple and "small" story of two individuals struggling to cling to life, and creates a very effective subtext that says a lot about the struggle of humanity as a species and what it means to be alive in the first place. Floating in space, we are stripped of two of the most basic and unconscious aspects of life -- gravity and oxygen. It is fascinating to observe how people behave and how it affects the human mind to have these most fundamental pieces of existence taken away.
While Kowalski appears unencumbered and carefree to the point where he seems completely unaffected by weightlessness, floating freely through the darkness of space, Stone, by contrast, clings to whatever she can find. Stone is a damaged woman, deeply in mourning and nearly suffocated by her own grief as much as by her dwindling supply of oxygen. Although it seems it was this feeling of being weighted down by life under the pressure of Earth's atmosphere and the pull of its gravity that led her into space, she was both literally and figuratively unable to "let go" and enjoy the weightlessness of a life free from despair. It is richly rewarding to see her journey from passivity to taking a more active approach and discover her will to live -- this is not the most original character trajectory, but one I've seldom seen told more successfully.
All of this headiness aside, the film is also a technical masterpiece. This is the best use of CGI and 3D effects I have ever seen, and this is because they are used in a way that made me completely forget they were there. At no point while I was watching did I ever feel like the effects were intrusive. This is the way that technology should be used to enhance a film -- they should bring you deeper into the world, not take you out of it. After the glut of nonsense summer films that looked more like video games than movies, this was refreshing and welcomed, and I hope more filmmakers take notice. I'm hugely critical of seeing any film in 3D -- this is the first time I've ever felt that it enhanced the story. Cuarón makes many smart choices with his camera, switching between POV shots and long sweeping wider takes seamlessly to create one of the most immersive films I've ever experienced. There are moments when he frames shots to drive home the film's theme of rebirth in a way that is almost too heavy-handed, but everything looks so beautiful that it didn't bother me.
He also does a great job of creating tension and suspense with all of these techniques. While not necessarily a horror film, this is probably the most nervous I've ever been in a movie theater. I always thought it was a horrible cliche to describe something as "nail biting", but I literally found myself doing just that throughout much of the film. I also appreciated being given what seemed to be a much more realistic version of space than Hollywood usually offers. Neil deGrasse Tyson has been slamming the film and its physics on Twitter over the last few days, and while I'm normally the first one to decry a film's blunders, he is coming across as a persnickety fool. It's not a documentary, it's fiction, where lies bring us to our deepest truths. To complain about the way Bullock's hair moves in zero-G in a film of this magnitude seems unnecessary. And it's not as if they've committed any egregious and unforgivable errors, like changing the color of Gandalf's beard.
Despite -- or because of -- its deceptively simple nature, Gravity is one of those rare films that works on every level. Its characters and their struggles are not complex, but when working in the realm of archetype, these are the stories that tend to hit deepest and last longest. After all, humanity's longest lasting stories are myths, and this is the stuff that Gravity is made of and why I think it will stand the test of time. Working as both an action packed study of suspense and an impressive technical achievement with outstanding performances, this is definitely an "event" film, one I feel is destined to be thought of as a great American classic to stand alongside the likes of Hollywood's greatest achievements. Rating: A