As you would have guessed from the trailers, with Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón has made a horrifying movie about being stranded in space. But the best—and most surprising—thing about Gravity is that it's also tasteful and elegant. It's the minimalist blockbuster you never knew you'd been longing for.
The modern blockbuster is a goddamn mess. Have some of them also managed to be awesome? Yes, of course. But for the most part, they're an exercise in excess. Hey, someone gave us $300 million, let's spend it! And a lot of the time it works. From Avatar to The Avengers, explosions and mind-bending imagery don't just sell tickets, they make for some high-grade entertainment, too. But for all the money that's well-spent on "motion picture events," just as much cash is wasted on garbage that's unwatchable. All the ingenuity and human effort that goes into wanna-be tentpoles ends up perverting the medium it's trying to hold up. And it's not just bad art; it's a disservice to the people who spend their cash to be entertained.
Yes, Gravity is a symphony of computer graphics and sound editing. But it's also a beautifully told story. You feel the fear of a pair of stranded astronauts, deftly played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who are helplessly floating through space trying every possible means to get home. They're surrounded by a museum's worth of beautiful imagery, generated by some of the most advanced film technology out there. But all of that is background to the very human story at the movie's core.
As an excellent profile in Variety last month notes, Gravity would have been impossible a few years ago. Alfonso Cuarón had been tossing the idea for a film about astronauts floating in zero gravity for a decade, but the technology to render Cuarón's long, uncut shots entirely in computer graphics just couldn't be done until recently. With the exception of the actor's faces, every part of Gravity's space is entirely CGI. When you think about it, that should be obvious: There's no way to film a movie in space. But it takes very little time to forget that this movie is made by computers. You'll never be distracted anything remotely hokey about the way the movie looks. It's not showing off; it's creating a world. One that you become fully invested in.
Even the 3D effect, which is too often just a hideous gimmick, is subtle and so well-executed that you don't ever think "Oh gee, the 3D on this particular scene looks awfully wonky." or "I wish I was sitting in the middle of the theater."
While we're on the subject of subtlety, we shouldn't underestimate the importance of Gravity's sound economy. I saw the film in regular 3D—not IMAX—with a Dolby Atmos mix, the sound company's most advanced system. The detailed sound mix is only overbearingly apparent a a few times. What's more striking, in fact, is the lack of sound sometimes. Back in 1979, Alien popularized the tagline "In space no one can hear you scream," and Cuarón uses the physical impossibility of sound in space to his advantage in crafting the narrative. In a world where movies are always packed with massive explosions, seeing space vehicles dismantled in total silence is downright spooky, with the added bonus of being accurate. And throughout the film, abrupt edits between the sound-rich worlds of inside a vessel or helmet and silent spacescape helps stress the astronauts' feelings of isolation and hopelessness.
That the filmmakers were able to make the Gravity for just $80 million is pretty damn impressive, and in part, the price tag might have been lower because unlike the two-and-a-half-hour-plus summer blockbusters we're used to, it clocks in at an hour-and-a-half. You don't feel at all skimped by the short run-time; by the time it's over, you're ready for your heart to stop beating so fast. Besides, it's yet another way to underscore the film's counter-intuitive minimalism. It tells exactly as much story as it needs to.
Speaking of story, I haven't really told you much about what happens in the movie, but the premise is more or less what you can glean from the previews: Astronauts struggling in space following a cascading chain of unfortunate events. To tell you more would spoil the movie. I will say that Cuarón doesn't waste any time getting to the action, and that the film's pacing is superb. Both George Clooney and Bullock are great, with Bullock's performance standing out; her character's moods swing from panicked, to sad, to anxious, to resigned, and beyond very convincingly in a very short span.
Ultimately, Gravity is a stunning flick because for all the technical excess that went into making it, you won't ever notice it. It uses the most intense technology we've ever developed for film leveraged to make an intimate portrait about what it means to be a real person who feels fear and pain. This film is about everything we as people are capable of and how it goes to shit if we don't check ourselves. And that message applies to space just as much as it applies to the art of making movies.