Gravity is an astonishing cinematic achievement, one of the most masterful pieces of technical filmmaking I have ever seen - and likely will ever see. It is 90 minutes of sheer excitement and terror, a dizzyingly participatory experience. It is a great ride, one everyone should take this weekend in 3D and IMAX.
And yet somehow I feel like the Grinch when I say that, when I admit that I really liked Gravity as opposed to head-over-heels loving it. The movie works in ways that even some of the best movies ever made must envy, and yet my experience with Gravity ended up being very surface level. It’s astonishing filmmaking centered around an extraordinary performance, but I never found myself fully emotionally invested.
I was invested all along in a very visceral way. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts on a space walk - he’s the old pro and she’s a frightened technician on her first trip out of atmosphere - when a satellite destruction chain reaction bombards them with thousands of pieces of whizzing debris that puncture space suits and space shuttles equally. The two are left adrift, their ride back to Earth destroyed and their communications with ground control cut off. They’re at the mercy of their dwindling oxygen and fuel supplies as well as the cruel, unbreakable laws of physics that send them careening off into the void in whatever direction they are pushed.
The film’s set pieces, which keep coming as fast as the debris that fucks everything up, are breathless and exciting. Alfonso Cuaron uses his trademark long takes and fluid camera moves to keep you living inside every moment, to get your heart pounding. The 3D will make you involuntarily duck out of the way of the jagged bits of metal that menace Bullock and Clooney, and the sense of immersion is only aided by the director’s tendency to move his camera into a first person point of view; truly the influence of video games is written all over Gravity.
Every minute of the movie is exhilarating and I cannot recommend it enough, but I found myself unable to engage emotionally. Bullock’s character is the focus of the story, and she is a woman dealing with the fallout of a personal tragedy years before. Hanging there in space, balanced between the fertile Earth and the emptiness of space, she has to make a serious decision about what she wants from her life - or whether she truly wants it at all. The script bravely explores the difference between the innate, hardwired will to survive and the more intellectual desire to be quit of it all, and Bullock is fantastic as the woman who has to find her place in that continuum. But it simply never clicked deeply for me; all of the backstory was, by the nature of the piece, delivered with clunkiness and never felt organic. I almost think the movie would have been more emotionally resonant if we didn’t know her backstory, just knew that she had little left for her on Earth.
But it’s an expensive movie, and so we have to be walked through all of the emotional beats. I can’t hold that against Cuaron (who wrote the movie with his son, Jonas), who has to make sure that this film - which is rather avant for a big budget blockbuster - is digestible by everyone. And while I was completely with the movie - often in awe - I would have liked to experience the emotional catharsis that many others have found in the film.
Bullock is truly incredible. For much of the movie she’s totally on her own, floating against scenery so CGIed that the film almost qualifies as animation. And yet she’s constantly convincing, always in the moment and always selling the tactile reality of all these unreal things. If that weren’t enough she’s holding all the weight of the narrative, letting us understand what she’s doing and why while also letting us into her head for the emotional arc. It’s one of the great performances of the decade, and what makes it so good is how little effort Bullock seems to be giving. Clearly she’s working her ass off, but the reality of her performance makes everything around her feel completely natural.
And yet she’s almost upstaged by Clooney! Astronaut is the perfect role for this guy, and if every astronaut were like George Clooney NASA would have funding for manned missions to Mars by now. He’s dashing and charming, and he’s so good that he colors a bit of heroic bravado with just enough fear to make us feel the danger while still swooning over his awesomeness. He and Bullock have a great rapport, one which could have lasted the whole film and I would have been incredibly satisfied.
But this isn’t a film about rapport, it’s about a woman facing oblivion and coming to terms with it - or refusing to do so. That’s part of why having Clooney leave the film for a big chunk works so well - we feel his absence and it helps us feel the magnitude of Bullock’s isolation.
What also helps us feel that is some of the best digital effects work I have ever seen in a movie. Looking at behind the scenes pictures I was stunned to find that Bullock and Clooney weren’t even wearing complete space suits on set; their very costumes are CGI. But the illusion is complete and real; for much of the film’s running time the only real world thing you are seeing is Sandra Bullock’s face inside a helmet and I guarantee you wouldn’t know that if you weren’t told. As an achievement in effects Gravity is not next level but three levels beyond that; it gives me true hope for CGI to be used seamlessly and in the service of great filmmaking.
Make no mistake: this is great filmmaking. Alfonso Cuaron is a genius. Only a genius could have the sure-footed ability to grab us by the wrist and hurl us through the danger and excitement and beauty and fun of Gravity. If other studio blockbusters were even one third as well-made and smart as this film we’d be living in some kind of cinematic utopia. So why am I left ever so slightly disappointed that this film is merely really great and not the absolute masterpiece I so badly wanted it to be?