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Review: Alfonso Cuarón's Visceral, Knuckle-Chewing 'Gravity' Starring Sandra Bullock & George Clooney

by Oliver Lyttelton
October 3, 2013 7:01 PM
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Since JFK vowed to put a man on the moon in 1961, space has represented untold possibility, hope and optimism. But once we actually got there, we realized what a terrifying place it can be. An endless void, freezing and/or burning, a place without air or life. But most terrifyingly of all, if you die in space, you die alone: thousands of miles above and away from your loved ones. And more than anything, aren’t we most afraid of dying alone? Alfonso Cuarón seems to think so, as that’s the fear that drives his new film, the extraordinary “Gravity.”

The long-awaited project arrives seven years after Cuarón’s last film, “Children Of Men," and while the anticipation over the picture has been breathless, the filmmaker’s return manages to live up to, or even exceed, those hopes at almost every level. Over a nearly seamless opening shot that clocks in at least fifteen minutes long, the director introduces his subjects, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), on his last expedition, and scientist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a nervous, haunted first-timer.

It’s a gentle, enjoyable opening, one dominated by Clooney’s warmth and humor as he prepares to say goodbye to orbit, but things suddenly go south, as an exploding satellite causes a tidal wave of debris that decimates both the Hubble telescope, which the two are working on, and their space shuttle. And from then on out, the film is about their battle for survival as they scramble to make it back to Earth alive (which might disappoint those expecting something more existential along the lines of  “2001: A Space Odyssey”). “Gravity” is very much an action adventure film, one very occasionally more meditative than most, but it’s unashamed in its desire to thrill you. 

And thrill you it certainly does. It’s visceral, knuckle-chewingly tense stuff, with Cuarón and his co-writer and son Jonás expertly packing obstacle packed on top of obstacle in the way of the astronauts’ return home, without losing touch of humanity or humor. The camera floats as weightlessly as its subjects, but the shots (often extended, but always in a way that favors storytelling above showboating) are always clear, and more often than not composed with meaning and artistry, courtesy of the great Emmanuel Lubezki. And with the director being careful to ensure the void of space doesn’t carry any noise, the excellent score by Steven Price (“Attack The Block,” “The World’s End”) helps to keep things both breathless and beautiful.

The film comes as close as most of us are likely to get to actually being in space (undoubtedly aided by the 3D: this is one film that’s really worth paying the extra bucks for to see in the format, whether the lens is capturing a tiny spinning speck in the distance or debris flying in your face). But it shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere rollercoaster ride—even if your instinct, as at a theme park, is to finish the experience and line up again for another go. When all’s said and done, the action is in service of character, and more specifically, Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone.

The character is less of a presence early on—she’s withdrawn and panicky, and mostly following Clooney's lead. But Bullock moves to the forefront as the film goes on, as a tragedy in her personal life is gradually revealed. Her arc brushes against sentimentality sometimes as it doesn't say anything particularly revelatory and risks coming across as somewhat like a self-help book—the character is more sketched rather than drawn. But Cuarón just about keeps things restrained, helped in a big way by Bullock, who through action rather than words, is steely, vulnerable, occasionally funny and about the best she’s ever been in a dramatic role. Clooney’s just as good—his effervescence drives the early sections, but he brings home the pathos too with his part-paternal, part-flirty chemistry with Bullock.

They deserve all the credit in the world, but there’s no doubt from the first few frames that the film is anyone but Cuarón’s. With “Children Of Men” still more of a cult favorite means that he perhaps doesn’t have the reputation among wider audiences that he deserves, but that’s likely to change here. The film’s technically perfect, of course, from the terrific sound design to the impeccable effects (the exact extent of the CGI is difficult to say, because pretty much everything looks photo-realistic, even when things head indoors). But it’s also cleverly written, and more than anything, phenomenally directed, from the way that he uses every available surface to tell his story (someone’s going to write a book one day on the use of reflections in this film) to the way he and Lubezki shift the light to vary the color palette, preventing it from becoming repetitive. Almost every decision is inspired.

Almost every one. There’s one nod to “2001” at one point that’s so overt enough that it threatens to break the reality of the world that Cuaron Cuarón’s set up. And the very final music cue is so overbearing that we nearly dropped the film down a grade. But ultimately, these are minor quibbles. “Gravity” is about as visceral an experience as you can have in a cinema, it’s a technical marvel, and it’s a blockbuster with heart and soul in spades. [A]

This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Venice Film Festival.

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  • Alejandro | October 7, 2013 11:20 AMReply

    Gorgeous film in all respects. I don't agree with those who, first, say that this is science-fiction, or second, that it's primarily an adventure movie. To me it's actually the anti-blockbuster, an understated existential drama of survival and rebirth, and therefore an affirmation of life. I've heard several people complain about the film's "sentimentality", but to me the "sentimental" part is essential. Dr. Stone's tragedy is the center of the film, which is about going on, about choosing between death and life when life seems meaningless. Bullock has to choose between drifting aimlessly in, to borrow Pascal's famous words, the eternal silence of infinite space, which is what she has been doing on earth, or the gravity of life, the adventure of hope. The finale and the music are also essential. Cuaron knows the scope and nature of his film. This is about life and death. Call it trite but this is nothing but the human condition in a nutshell.

  • Jay | October 7, 2013 10:55 AMReply

    I found the movie to be slow, tedious and middling in story. The camera work, yes. The idea and capture, yes. Bullock? No. The real intense peril scenes were great but too quick.

  • Joe | October 6, 2013 10:53 PMReply

    Just curious, what's the "2001" reference? Is it when Sandra curls up like the star baby?

  • Joez | October 27, 2013 11:55 PM

    yeah I was wondering what the reviewer was referring to. the shot near the beginning of her spinning out into space was pretty close to that shot in 2001.

  • Caleb | October 4, 2013 11:16 PMReply

    The final music cue is only overbearing if you can't understand the film is obviously about reincarnation. Or something.

  • benutty | October 4, 2013 2:04 PMReply

    I should stop reading this review based on the first paragraph alone. This reviewer clearly didn't understand the theme of the film if he thinks it's about the fear of dying alone. Isn't it actually about the fear that grips every aspect of our life when we're left alone after those around us die?

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