It seems that every year we get a film that can be considered a prestige effects picture – landmark visual experiences that are generally nominated for Best Picture soon after their great critical and commercial success. Examples of this trend in recent years include Avatar, Inception, Hugo, Life of Pi and now we have a possible contender in the form of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Sporting spectacular visuals, unprecedented realism along with Oscar winners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in the lead roles, could we potentially have a Best Picture winner on our hands?
The crew of the space shuttle Explorer are doing the final spacewalk to service the aging Hubble Space Telescope, in which both bio-medical engineer and first-time astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) – incidentally on his final mission – are repairing various instruments of the telescope. However, Mission Control in Houston (Ed Harris) then warns the crew that a deadly debris field from a Russian anti-satellite test has caused a chain reaction of destruction amongst other satellites in Earth’s orbit. The debris heads in their direction, and thus they are advised to abort the mission. The transmission arrives too late, though, for the debris field damages the shuttle and the telescope, sending both Stone and Kowalski into the dark abyss. The two then resolve to return home no matter how difficult it may be.
I’m just going to say it – Gravity is the best movie I have seen all year so far. I realize that I have yet to see other films among this year’s cinematic offerings, but as of now this stands as the defining cinematic achievement of 2013. This isn’t just because of how much of a technical marvel it is, for there actually is a great story at work here. Sure, it is straightforward and rather familiar in terms of survival story conventions, but what matters here is that the execution is superb, and the story is told in a visceral, emotional and realistic manner that is unlike anything that has ever been seen in cinema.
One could undoubtedly look at this simply as a survival thriller, and because of its marvelous pacing and consistent razor-sharp tone Gravity would still be satisfying on those grounds. Still, Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonás have taken a step further in their screenplay by transforming this space thriller into an extraordinary human drama that deals starkly with how we struggle with depression, hardship and in some ways mankind’s relationship with technology. Rooting the story in a damaged, female heroine and placing her in a harrowing journey that would make anyone quiver with fear was enough to immerse me into the story; Ryan Stone is relatable as a human being. The choice to then make Gravity a spiritual journey as well transformed it into an emotional ride. Top that off with excellent dialogue, a consistent emotional intensity and an unprecedented amount of realism, and you’ve got quite a remarkable story even in its simplicity.
I’m not going to argue that Sandra Bullock did very well with her Oscar winning performance in The Blind Side, but if there was any film she deserved that award for, it would be this one. One main thing that I do love about her performance is that she never goes overboard in scenes that could be considered the “Oscar moments”. Her entire performance is downplayed to the point in which her character feels like a true human being that is experiencing these issues. This means that every gasp for breath, expression of emotion or quiet line of dialogue feels real; you feel from her performance that she is a damaged, three-dimensional individual who is truly affected by the events surrounding her. The overall subdued nature of her performance is ultimately what makes her so compelling to watch on screen, and considering that she is the one we are paying to attention to for most of Gravity, this is quite an achievement indeed. Her co-star George Clooney is not in the film as much as the trailers would suggest, but he still plays a key role to great effect. His trademark charm and smooth talking is here, and it works for what he brings to the character; he serves as emotional relief in a film that is consistently thrilling.
Despite the great leads, it can’t be ignored that the star of Gravity is Alfonso Cuarón due to the immaculate visuals. First of all, the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is so pristine, it would make even the great Stanley Kubrick proud for its sheer beauty and precision. In other words, Gravity looks as if it was actually photographed in space. This is certainly attributable to Cuarón’s unconventional use of long takes and camera movements, for the camera often drifts throughout the scenery for minutes on end without ever cutting. Within that, Gravity often shifts focus from the perspectives of the audience to the characters themselves (sometimes in first-person), lending to the sensation that the viewers are actually experiencing the action on-screen. The use of CGI is also perfect since every detail from the astronauts, stars, space stations and even Earth never look fake.
Gravity should also be noted for its realism, as well. Of course some scientific details have to be changed in order to accommodate a plot, but otherwise the elements of space that one would expect are here: a lack of sound, air, or force, so all of these add to the authenticity of this film’s set pieces. Despite a lack of loud action and explosions, Gravity manages to stay intense. All we hear is the dialogue between the astronauts and Steven Price’s beautifully haunting musical score, so these both blend together to make Gravity a subtle, but eerie experience in its silence. Even though these elements work together to emphasize the horrors of space, there is still a sense of respect and reverence for it as well, resulting in something that perfectly encompasses its wondrous, mysterious and terrifying nature.
I honestly believe that Gravity will end up being a very strong contender for Best Picture. The film is unlike anything moviegoers have ever seen, and its authenticity and sheer intensity makes for a compelling picture. Alfonso Cuarón’s latest is also a masterful blend of sound and visuals – a cinematic experience that is visceral, unique, majestic and relentlessly terrifying. The beauty of Gravity is how well it also blends a deceptively simple narrative into the aesthetics. This well-written story from the Cuarón father-son duo succeeds at teaching us about the wonders of space, human nature, spiritual rebirth and the pitfalls of science, lending to an emotionally and philosophically satisfying experience. Add all of these elements together, and you have a film that will never be forgotten.