As wonderful a genre as science fiction is, 99.9% of movies made under that label lean a lot more heavily on the “fiction” part than the “science,” so it’s a rare treat when we get one that relies on some scientific fact-based scenarios to produce dramatic effect. When pitching 2001: A Space Odyssey to MGM all those years ago, Stanley Kubrick said he wanted to produce the first “good” science-fiction film, with his definition of “good” being “believable,” as he wanted to tell a compelling story in a setting that could easily be our own world. Of course, he very famously did so, and the lack of similar efforts by other filmmakers through the years could be evidence of how difficult a task “realistic” science fiction is.
Alfonso Cauron’s Gravity, however, belongs in any discussion with Kubrick’s master-piece. By saying such a thing, I don’t mean to imply that they are equals (2001 is such a unique film that almost anything will pale in comparison to it), but I do mean that Gravity is such an absolute technical marvel, like 2001, that its being a very good human story is like icing on the proverbial cake.
The film opens with an uninterrupted seventeen-minute take depicting a space shuttle repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are two members of the crew we see performing extra-vehicular activity (that’s space-walking to you and me) when NASA radios an emergency abort alert, as a field of debris from a destroyed Russian satellite is in a direct orbital path with their shuttle. This cloud of metallic fragments travelling faster than any bullet ever could does indeed find them before they are able to change their orbital path, destroying the spacecraft and leaving Kowalski and Stone adrift in space. What follows is an engrossing, fascinating story of loss, bravery and the discovery of a will to survive, told by Cauron in such a stunningly beautiful way that any audience member not feeling fear and anxiety, and happiness and joy, is almost certainly a fairly dark-hearted individual.
By the end of the first act, Gravity essentially becomes a one-woman show, a story of a woman’s decision to survive, not only her current predicament, but her lonely, emotionally empty life in general. Sandra Bullock’s performance is a statement that her Oscar win two years ago was no fluke, and I fully expect to see her name listed amongst the Best Actress nominees again come February. There are so many scenes in which she is the only character, and yet even without anyone to exchange dialogue, she conveys so much about Stone’s fear, and pain, and depression, that we know this character intimately by the time the film ends, and her fate is all the more emotionally impactful for it.
As amazing a story as Gravity is, the concept of a massive storm of orbital space debris could be the impetus for several other fascinating stories, as we could imagine how our society would react to a severe crippling of, if not outright elimination of, global telecom-munications that would result from such a scenario. Imagine television and radio broad-casts being interrupted, international telephone calls being impossible, and internet connec-tivity being all but stopped. Hell, the loss of world-wide Twitter access alone might be the beginning of Armageddon. Cauron, to his credit, does not distract us from the story he chooses to tell, not even once, trusting his audience to understand how there’s a wave of chaos going on down on Earth, which makes the solitude of Bullock’s character all that much more profound.
At the risk of being repetitive, I’ll reiterate that Gravity is worth the price of admission as a visual treat alone. Cauron’s use of computer-generated effects is extensive, but done with such great skill that not once are we under the misguided notion that we’re viewing some sci-fi space opera. Cauron’s lighting and camera movement constantly amazed me, and the moments of suspense and danger the astronauts faced got physical reactions from me that most movies can’t get out of me anymore. Even the sound design of the film was fantastic, as we heard the radio transmissions from Earth differently when we were inside the astronauts’ helmets than we did when we were outside their suits (yes, you read that right - Cauron takes us all sorts of places in this film), and the silence of space is punctu-ated by the thuds and clunks that would be heard when the characters were in enclosed spaces with atmosphere.
Now I did see Gravity in IMAX 3D, and yes, I’ve just raved and raved about how beautiful it was to watch, but I continue to believe this format to be a waste of a filmgoer’s money, and a lesser viewing experience than traditional two-dimensional film presentation. With the ex-ception of Avatar, I’m yet to see a 3D film that didn’t have muddied or unbalanced colors, and I would even include Avatar when maintaining that the 3D effects have not yet added anything absolutely necessary to a story being told on-screen. That being said, to each his own, and your tastes and experiences may differ, but I don’t think there’s really any debate needed when saying Gravity is the best picture of 2013 so far.