Some movies demand to be seen. Gravity demands to be experienced, in 3D, on the widest possible screen, surrounded by the most excitable people you can find. During its slim 88-minute running time, Gravity conjures the physical and emotional weight of space flight and zero-gravity navigation with more skill, grace and beauty than any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s also one of the few movies in which George Clooney’s star magnetism gets outshined, not only by his co-star, the luminous Sandra Bullock, but by the sheer force of the spectacle surrounding the two leads. Gravity takes stunning advantage of the scope that the big screen affords and the small screen lacks – anyone who says that television is better at everything than movies need only be reminded that no one does outsized spectacle like Hollywood.
And spectacle this is. Visionary director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men) opens the film with a careening 17-minute sequence, shot in one take, that establishes the movie’s principle setting (outer space, duh), introduces the two main characters and their dynamic (George Clooney as hotshot smooth-talker Matt Kowalski; Sandra Bullock as tortured workhorse Dr. Ryan Stone), and sets the brilliantly thin plot cascading into action in a hail of asteroids. This scene is executed with such precision and finesse, from the near silence to the gradual fade-in of the radio communications and the relaxed cadence of Clooney and Bullock’s interplay, that the rest of the movie seems unlikely to deliver the same knockout – until it does.
Once Ryan becomes untethered from the space station and Matt goes after her, the movie pauses only briefly, to reflect on the characters’ lives before the incident. Ryan’s backstory is particularly significant, and played with wrenching specificity by Bullock, who captures the character’s latent sorrows and fierce perseverance, even puncturing the tension with genuinely funny one-liners. In fact, Bullock’s performance in this movie is a special effect all its own. A monologue near the end finds the actress at the peak of her gifts, summoning every ounce of emotional will to deliver a layered speech that ultimately proves premature.
If 3D has seemed increasingly marginal in the recent Hollywood landscape, it’s because filmmakers haven’t been using it to its full potential. We’re not interested in seeing the world we live in rendered in 3D – we’ve got this funny thing called the real world for that. The filmmakers who have most successfully integrated the third dimension into their aesthetics are the ones who use it to deepen worlds we’re not already familiar with. Martin Scorsese constructs a convincing and whimsical train station in Hugo. James Cameron invents a new planet in Avatar (though that movie’s narrative limpness hasn’t held up well in the years since its release). And now Cuaron asserts himself at the head of the 3D pack – he wrings gorgeous images out of horrifying scenarios, evoking genuine sensations of dizziness and exhaustion even while the plot grows increasingly outlandish.
(As Neil DeGrasse Tyson has aggressively pointed out on Twitter, this movie’s plot strains scientific credulity in any number of places. It’s nice to see that popular movies can start conversations about actual science, but these criticisms don’t strike me as fair in the context of this movie’s overall impact. I don’t understand the science at work in Gravity, and I don’t need to, as long as the movie provides me with a sense of consistency in its physics.)
Gravity isn’t without its problems. Clooney’s character felt underwritten, as if Cuaron and his son Jonas (the credited screenwriters) were simply coasting on the charms of the onetime Sexiest Man Alive. Several bits of dialogue fall too close to the realm of the cutesy. The movie’s themes are a tad on-the-nose – space is a lonely place and blah blah blah.
But these flaws melt away when set against the totality of this film’s visceral impact. Time will tell if Gravity signals as significant a shift in visual filmmaking and cinematic ambition as its spiritual ancestors, including 2001: A Space Odyssey. Regardless of its historical impact, though, Gravity is already making a strong impact at the box office, with the strongest second-week hold of any $55+ million opener in movie history. Why? Because Gravity offers the ideal moviegoing experience, and one of the most difficult to achieve. It transports us to another world, and dares us not to come back down to Earth.