At the beginning of Gravity, George Clooney tells Sandra Bullock that “anxiety isn’t good for the heart.” In that case, Gravity definitely doesn’t come doctor recommended. The film, clocking in at a lean ninety-one minutes, is an almost non-stop nail-biter, featuring only a few moments that allow the audience to catch their collective breath. Beautiful and utterly terrifying, Gravity brings a fear of the cold silence of space to a new generation of filmgoers.
In case you haven’t heard of it, Gravity is the latest film from Alfonso Cuarón, perhaps best known for his film Children of Men and for allowing the child actors to wear normal clothes in the third Harry Potter film. Not much about Gravity’s plot was known prior to release, and for good reason. The plot can be summed up in one sentence: a massive cloud of space debris destroys a space shuttle and sends George Clooney and Sandra Bullock spinning into space. The rest of the movie is spent watching the characters struggle to survive in the least hospitable environment imaginable. While the film throws its characters into an incredibly high stakes situation almost immediately, it doesn’t rest on its laurels. Gravity consistently raises the stakes for Clooney and Bullock, and every time the audience feels a character might finally be safe, the film throws them back into danger.
Technically speaking, Gravity is gorgeous. Everything works together to create an immersive world. Earth is rendered in impeccable detail, as is the spacecraft that litters the orbit. Visually, the film is stunning, but the true technical standout is the sound design. Film purists often lament the trend of streaming movies to cell phones and tablets because of the loss in visual quality, but in this case, the sound of the film needs to be appreciated with a high quality system. Unlike most movies, Gravity takes into account the fact that sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum, leaving some of the biggest explosions and collisions in the film in a muted silence. The audience experiences sound almost exactly the same way Bullock’s character would, mimicking her journey.
The camera work also deserves a special mention. Gravity features many long, uninterrupted sequences, the first being the fifteen minute opening shot. Sitting in the audience, you almost feel like you should be watching the film while strapped into some kind of futuristic cinema-goggles. If anyone wants to write an essay about the influence of video games on film, they would find a treasure trove to analyze in the cinematography of Gravity.
Unfortunately, the same kind of technical precision doesn’t hold up when it comes to the characters. Bullock and Clooney do a fine job of acting. For Bullock, most of her best moments come when she doesn’t open her mouth. The dialogue here is schmaltzy, cliché, and in many cases, just plain bad. Bullock’s emotional journey is almost inconsequential, and we only care about Clooney because he’s just charming enough to pull it off. The backstory we get on the pair is pointless and boring, and offers no real insight into the characters’ minds. What makes this most frustrating is how tacked on these expository exchanges and monologues seem to be. They seem to be added on almost as an afterthought, with no real effect on the story or the emotional arc. Gravity would’ve been better off cutting them out entirely, and letting the strength of the plot carry the film forward.
Despite its shortcomings, Gravity still shines above the other films in theaters this fall. In a season that’s been mostly full of duds, it’s great to finally get a film that not only deserves the hype but also exceeds it. Gravity is a simple film, to be sure, but it never pretends not to be. Instead, it stands as a powerful technical showcase from a skilled director at the helm and two perfectly capable actors in the forefront. The whole film moves like clockwork, and in a year where most films appear to have something stuck in the gears, that’s not a bad thing at all.