“Film as dream, film as music. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.” - Ingmar Bergman.
Is it appropriate to open a review for a sci-fi film, a Sandra Bullock movie, with a quote as heavy-handed as this one? Since I did it, obviously I think so, because the only other phrase I could think of that would tersely sum up my feelings toward 'Gravity' goes something like, “Aggghghghghghhhdhhghhhh! *droool *drool *drool” and that makes me look like an idiot.
'Gravity' is direct, brilliant, brutal stuff, and the boldest experiment in cinema since Gaspar Noe's 'Enter The Void.' It wastes no time, dazzling you with next-level technical wizardry from the get-go, spinning the viewer into an altered state, disarming audiences and priming them for a session of fundamental philosophical inquiry. What is the purpose of life? Why do we fear death? How do we summon courage? What are our breaking points? Woah, woah, woah – this is heavy stuff. Isn't this supposed to be Sandra Bullock zipping through space? It still is. That's part of the genius of 'Gravity.'
Bullock, perfectly cast in a role of a lifetime, is as much of an every[wo]man as possible on a space shuttle mission. She's a scientific specialist attached to tinker with a doohickey on an orbiting telescope. She's a professional, but she's only had six months of training. Everything she's done until now has been in the simulator (with varying levels of success) and while she's way over her head, she's a sharp as all hell. We watch her learn from her mistakes and we are right there with her as she engages each obstacle in the unrelenting, (near)-real time assault fate throws her way as she desperately tries to stay alive.
A typical spacewalk goes awry when debris from an exploded Russian satellite becomes an orbiting shower of death at regular intervals. (Best "ticking clock" ever? Certainly the most far out.) When Bullock and mission commander George Clooney are separated from the rest of the crew, each beat of the film is a mini-drama of calculation and decision. Assess the problem, devise a plan, make first attempt, alter course with newly observed data. Rinse and repeat until, somehow, you are safely back on terra firma.
This basic plot is enough for an engaging movie. (Heck, J.C. Chandor wowed me at Cannes with the similar Robert Redford vehicle 'All Is Lost,' set at sea, not in space.) But, director Alfonso Cuaron, whose outstanding 'Children of Men' remains one of the top films of the last decade, ups the ante with outrageous visual alacrity. The first shot of the film goes on for fifteen or so minutes without a noticeable cut. In fact, I only counted around seven cuts in the first half of the 88-minute movie. (At the half-way mark, there is a more conventionally stitched together sequence.) This does more than merely evoke the floating nature of space (or make you potentially queasy, a very real threat). It imbues the film with an ineffable importance. The native 3D, the blend of green screen and CGI plus the remarkable use of silences work together to rattle your seat and show you a space adventure like you've never seen before.
There's a lot that can get you amped up in 'Gravity,' but for me the image that is seared in my mind is something like a silent scream in a nightmare. As Bullock desperately struggles to untangle an escape pod (think of the frustration of the car that won't start in 'Children of Men' magnified 100 times over) she is completely unaware that directly above her, a giant structure is being smashed to smithereens and will soon come raining down on her. That's because, even though we've heard the tagline many times, it bears repeating: in space no one can hear you scream.
The disconnect of the shattering glass and metal without audible accompanying blasts are absolutely terrifying – and ripped straight from my worst nightmares. I don't know if this is working on post-9/11 fears of crumbling buildings or something more primal, but I nearly had a panic attack right there in the theater.
Elsewhere there is evidence of Cuaron's insistence that the frame remain busy – it isn't enough for a flare to go off in Zero-G, it has to ricochet dangerously, causing mayhem beyond what Bullock is focusing on in the foreground. None of this is to imply, however, that 'Gravity' is a mere spectacle.
The greatest trick of this film is, when you least expect it, character details and drama emerge, making the third act a thorough and rich emotional experience. Imagery of umbilical cords and rebirth may come off as heavy-handed to some, but when you are floating in the cold vacuum of space cut off from the rest of civilization you either go big or don't bother. 'Gravity' goes big and nails it.
'Gravity' is relentless, important and, let's not undersell this, completely entertaining. It may be my favorite movie of 2013.
'Gravity' opens in theaters on October 4.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.