There is a moment in Gravity, no more than 3-5 minutes into the film, when you realize you are there. You are there among the stars seemingly floating amongst the vastness of nothing and everything combined. There is a moment where even sitting in the audience becomes a full-on visceral experience created with stunning clarity by D.P. Emmanuel Lubezki, who has worked on all but one of director Alfonso Cuaron's films.
The film doesn't start off that way. In fact, it seems to start off rather ordinarily as Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a mission scientist on a NASA space mission to repair the Hubble Telescope, works intently while the mission's captain and longtime space vet Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) almost playfully jaunts around the ship while teasingly conversing with Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris) while another astronaut lingers nearby.
Life in space is impossible we're told ever so plainly in the film's opening scene.
Then, the words arrive - "Mission abort."
Your mind wonders "How do you abort a mission hundreds of miles above the Earth where there is no oxygen, no water, and no ability for sound to travel?"
"Life in space is impossible" floats through your mind as you're listening to Mission Control calmly inform the crew that the Russians have apparently shot down one of their own satellites.
Space debris is heading their way.
Life in space is impossible.
We have only learned minor details about Stone and Kowalski.
We have learned enough.
Stone is a medical engineer more used to working in the safety and security of hospital basements that amongst the stars. She comes to space desperately seeking solitude after a tragedy claimed the life of her daughter.
Kowalski has been doing space missions since 1996 and is on his last one, an acknowledged veteran who jokes about running just shy of the space walk record. His wife left him for another man during a previous mission, and one gets the sense that he'd love to claim the record just to have something he can hold onto when his career is done.
Gravity is a Warner Brothers release, but it rides that fine line between arthouse feature and sci-fi blockbuster. It performs in both roles and it performs both roles incredibly well.
By the time the space debris flies by, half the space station has been destroyed with its arm broken loose and spinningly wildly with Dr. Stone still attached to it. The calmer and collected Kowalski is prepared for the kind of disaster you can't really prepare for, but even sitting in the audience you absolutely know that the universe is in charge in this very moment and one wrong move simply proves what we've already been told - Life in space is impossible.
Gravity is 13 minutes into its 90-minute running time before Cuaron breaks his shot. You don't realize it right away, but as you're leaving the movie theater you can't help but be overwhelmed by the awesomeness of what unfolded.
"How did he do that?," you will likely mutter to yourself.
After all, life in space is impossible and surely filming in space is even moreso.
Yes, it truly feels that real. It feels so real that there are times it feels awkward and there are times it feels unreal. It's likely why you've watched the trailer thinking to yourself "There's no way that can be any good."
It seems impossible.
Gravity is destined to be compared with 2001: A Space Odyssey, though it never quite achieves that greatness partially because it feels less like science-fiction and a lot more like real life.
Gravity succeeds as both an intimate portrait of humanity and a universal portrait of our inter-connectedness. In fact, it was Cuaron's own Children of Men that came to mind most often during Gravity as both films, in different but related ways, connect to themes like hope vs. hopelessness, life vs. death, and resignation vs. resilience.
As you're watching Gravity, it is nearly impossible to not think to yourself "What would I do?" or "How would I survive?" or "Would I simply surrender myself to the space debris?"
To tell you too much of how Gravity's journey resolves itself would be incredibly wrong. While not particularly groundbreaking in terms of how the story evolves, it is not so much the story itself that matters but the experience of living it. What is refreshing is that Cuaron wisely avoids distractions - there are no aliens to speak of nor deeply metaphysical lessons nor, even more thankfully, unnecessary romantic sparks between our two so often romantic leading performers.
The script, penned by Cuaron with his son Jonas, is sparse but not silent and contemplative but not meditative. Perhaps because Gravity doesn't grapple more directly with the awesomeness of the universe in which it finds itself, the film itself feels every so slightly less immersive than one might hope. This may be a valid argument, yet it feels like an intentional choice that Cuaron has made to weave together the awe-inspiring mysteries of the universe into the everyday minutiae into a reality all its own.
If, like me, you scoffed just a tad when Sandra Bullock picked up an Oscar for her work in The Blind Side, ( and she did win a Razzie Award the same year for her work in the godawful All About Steve), then Gravity should finally put to rest any doubt about the actress's credibility. It is well know that Bullock was not Cuaron's first choice for Gravity, with such leading ladies as Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, Carey Mulligan, and a host of others having been offered the role prior to it arriving at Bullock's footsteps. It's reasonable to assume that an agent or two may find themselves unemployed here as Bullock is almost assured to receive, at minimum, an Oscar nomination for a performance that exudes strength, courage, fear, vulnerability, heart, and despair at times in the same fleeting moments. This is, without question, Bullock's finest work to date.
She is well matched with Clooney (who also was only selected after Robert Downey Jr. backed out), whose basic task is to serve as counselor, priest and guide in having Kowalski equip Stone to do what she must ultimately do to survive. While Clooney is certainly a major name, rest assured that Bullock is without a doubt the star and central figure in the film. Clooney also offers the film fleeting seconds of lightness it desperately needs in order to allow the audience room to breathe, something that was too often lacking in Children of Men.
Emmanuel Lubezki creates absolute wonder here by managing to capture both the universal and human experiences with equal awe and heart and energy. From the film's opening scenes, you will be wondering "How?" but by film's end you will simply be in awe that somehow Lubezki and Cuaron have worked together to create a film that feels both transcendent and deeply personal. Even when you find yourself wondering if Cuaron has catered to studio desires to show a bit of skin with Bullock, you can't help but watch the scene unfold and realize that rather than filming sexy he's filming serene and rather than exploiting he's creating an empowering vulnerability.
Life in space is impossible.
Creating a film like Gravity, a film that seemingly exists amongst the stars as cosmic dust in the universe, has always seemed impossible yet somehow Cuaron has figured out how to use the history of cinema and the endless potential of cinema to create a film that feels both classic and groundbreaking.
Gravity doesn't so much immerse you in its cinematic experience as it simply takes you there and sets you down among the stars so that you feel like you are amongst the stars rather than one with the stars. While Gravity was post-fitted with its 3-D imagery, even as awesome an experience as it is one gets the sense that it will play just as effectively on quality 2-D screens. On the flip side, if you ever get a chance to catch it on an IMAX that would seem like an ideal venue for the truly larger than life film.
Is life in space impossible?
It depends on how you define life.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic