Television screens are getting bigger. Home theater systems grow more sophisticated every day. But if there’s any film in recent memory that should inspire oneself to dislodge from the sofa and seek out the largest screen possible on which to view it, “Gravity” is that film.
“Gravity” is the latest stunning vision from Alfonso Cuarón, whose “Children of Men” included a well-choreographed, 10 minute single shot hailed for its visual endurance. He opens “Gravity” with an even more impressive, 13 minute single-shot introduction to the giant blue marble we call home and the comparably teensy shuttle crew in orbit around it.
Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a medical equipment engineer hired to use her expertise to repair the Hubble space telescope. Accompanying her on her first space mission is George Clooney as Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut on his last spacewalk whose personality pretty much matches that of Clooney himself. A few other characters are heard but never seen, the most recognizable being that of Ed Harris as “Mission Control,” no doubt a nod back to his role in “Apollo 13.” When Harris’ voice nervously explains that a Russian satellite has exploded, hurling debris in their direction, Stone and Kowalski must act fast in an environment that demands everyone take it slow.
What follows is an unadorned plot that is no less riveting despite its simplicity: Stone and Kowalski must survive in an environment that supports no life. The fact of the matter is that the cinematography and technical achievements of this film are none other than extraordinary. The visual grandeur of the universe is breathtaking, the muffled sound effects mimicking life in a vacuum slightly disturbing, and when Stone spins uncontrollably into the abyss of space, even the light from the sun reflected on her visor matches her place in the sky. It is a vision of outer space as real as most Earthlings are likely to experience, all presented in the best example of 3D cinema yet.
A common complaint of 3D glasses is their restrictive nature; they shrink an already limited view. Yet that same restriction is actually a plus in “Gravity” where this restraint pulls the viewer even further inside the action. We feel just as cramped as Stone, even more so when the perspective shifts as if we are looking out from her claustrophobic helmet. This simultaneity of feeling constrained while marveling at the vastness of space is one of the film’s visceral accomplishments.
It is no small triumph that “Gravity” features a middle aged woman as its center. Not since Jodie Foster in “Contact” has science-fiction (or in this case, science-reality) offered such an accurate portrayal of an intelligent woman who maintains her strength through physical and emotional turmoil. Bullock’s performance, which for the majority of the film is from the neck up, is raw and at times heartbreaking. She does with facial expression and breath what some actresses can’t do with their entire bodies available.
Stone is also given a backstory about a deceased daughter that some critics are dismissing as unnecessary emotional manipulation. But without this trauma, we couldn’t understand how Stone got up there in the first place. Her attempt at escape takes her as far as she can possibly get before the realities of planet Earth try and pull her back down. The theme of rebirth and the primal, reproductive imagery are substantiated by the fact that she was once a mother.
Regardless of the manipulative backstory, the simplistic plot, or even the few scientific inaccuracies, the real reason to see “Gravity” is for a spectacular vision of outer space, and a story that will keep you engaged until the very end. I’m wary of when this film comes out on On-Demand or DVD, suspecting that my inadequate TV won’t do it justice.