If you were to name the five chief motivations for making a film, it seems inevitable that “showing people the formerly unseen” would be in the mix. And with the profusion of new technology in film, this desire to create from imagination tends to result in pure fantasy; characters and places that are, for all intents and purposes, impossible. Not that I’m complaining. This trend has led to a golden era of fantasy film, and a collection of worlds most of us would give a kidney to visit. What have been neglected are the films intent on revealing not just the astonishing, but the astonishingly real. Gravity is one. It endeavors to show us a world that exists a hundred miles straight up, where you and I will never go. A world where our textbook understanding means little, and death and beauty are braided together, indistinguishably linked.
It begins so suddenly. The crew of space shuttle mission STS-157 is wrapping its final spacewalk under the command of Matt Kowalski (Clooney)—a veteran astronaut who drones classic country and tells the same stories ad infinitum— when the debris from an exploded Russian satellite is suddenly all around them, destroying their ship and leaving them adrift in space. Everyone in the crew dies, save Kowalski and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a mission specialist who possesses an interminable stoicism that suggests closeted ghosts, and whose training as an astronaut seems piecemeal at best. It is Ryan who we spend the film’s 91 minutes with, and it is her perfect terror we experience firsthand as she tumbles into the unfaltering blackness of open space.
That ceaseless emptiness feels like the predominant reason for Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón is plainly captivated by the unadorned majesty of space, as well as the inevitable dread and reverence it inspires. Gravity is, of course, a sumptuous visual feast, eagerly presenting a menagerie of perfectly constructed shots, and not only of space; one of the film’s many transcendent visual moments finds Dr. Stone floating tranquilly in the fetal position, a rare moment of peace. The film is built on the kind of unflawed compositions that Cuarón has made his bread and butter, imagery that feels as though it was dreamt in its entirety, then designed over days and weeks and months until every piece of every shot was perfectly aligned. Enough of the film is given over to lingering, longing shots of Earth and the cosmos that at times Gravity feels like a BBC nature documentary—Space and Us. Yet this is not a love letter. Cuarón plots a course for his film that rides a fine line between awe and anxiety, presenting space as both beauty and bête noire. This is all assisted by the Steven Price score, a vibrant and vicious combination of strings and electronica that feels, at once, earthbound and ethereal.
The score also shapes the characters, scoring their emotional journeys as much as the film’s action. In those first moments, when the astronauts come to realize that a savage assault is approaching, Price’s score is roiling, building towards a violent climax of concentrated terror. With the sound vacuum of space leaving the violent explosions and catastrophes around them utterly silent, the score feels like an appropriate bridge between the chaos surrounding Gravity’s characters and the chaos within them. Unfortunately, Alfonso and his co-writer (and son) Jonás Cuarón have a hard time allowing these inner struggles to remain unspoken, often pulling words out of their characters that simply don’t need to be there. This is both the film’s biggest weakness and ultimately a minor concern, as Gravity has far too much going on to be hindered by an excess of fragmentary character development, but it’s hard not to imagine a more austere and powerful version of Gravity, where words aren’t treated as such a necessity.
The question of Gravity is whether, in the end, it’s a film or a ride. A film tells a story, changes its characters, has an arc; a ride is more intent on presenting action and creating vivid moments. Bringing viewers to the edge of space and leaving them there for 90 minutes was always going to result in a more visceral, emotional experience than a cerebral one. And telling the story in real time means inevitably pushing character development to the side, particularly when your characters exist in an environment and a situation that make communication and exposition difficult. So yes, Gravity is less a traditional film than an experience, more of a ride than a film. It’s the sort of movie that will be unavoidably diminished when viewed in someone’s living room instead of a theater. It’s also exceptionally well made, with the clout to succeed outside of our expectations for “traditional” films. It provides you the opportunity to experience something that you truly never will, but that you theoretically could, and if you don’t think that’s a significant distinction, then you haven’t experienced Gravity yet.