For those that find the genre oft putting and too fantastical, science fiction is derisively dismissed as one whole frivolous block. In actuality, science fiction is a very broad term, consisting of a myriad of sub-genres. From dystopian futures with politically oriented subtext, to Joseph Campbell inspired hero mythologizing, to quantum physics-oriented philosophizing, science fiction is quite varied in the nature and tone of its content, making the moniker only loosely indicative of a preoccupation with things temporally and spatially foreign and distant. Few works in science fiction though, whether film or otherwise, have dealt with the physicality of space, other than as a temporary obstacle that puts a protagonist in danger. With Gravity, this statement is no longer true.
Gravity is an intense, heart-pounding thriller that is unrelenting in its focus on one woman’s drive to survive in conditions so inhabitable to human life, that the fact human beings have and are mucking about in space begins to feel a bit absurd. The film respectively stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as Matt Kowalsky and Ryan Stone, two astronauts (Matt by profession, Ryan as a recently converted doctor-turned-astronaut) who are attempting to complete some repairs on a space station (or at least I think that is what they were doing, but regardless, it doesn’t really matter).
It seems to be a fairly routine mission, despite Matt’s prophetic looming dread that something doesn’t feel right, until a falling satellite crashes into additional satellites causing a deadly cosmic version of crashing dominos. When the hunk of revolving space debris smashes into their space station, Ryan and Matt are left floating in the vast void of space, tethered together by a cable as Matt tries jetpacking them to the nearest neighboring space station.
As I mentioned above, the film is primarily focused on Matt and Ryan’s attempts to survive, which, along with science fiction, also places Gravity firmly in the survivalist genre as well. Now, usually, I am not that big of a fan of the survivalist genre. While I have enjoyed some of the genre’s most famous examples, such as Cast Away and Life of Pi, to varying degrees, there is always something that holds me back from embracing these kudos-laden films to the extent that many critics seem to. In particular, an inevitable weakness of the films of this genre is that in progressing the narrative, they are almost necessarily formulaic. We see said protagonist in hazardous situation. We see said protagonist think of a way out of the situation. We see said protagonist query their limited resources to accomplish goal. We see said protagonist have an “Ah-ha” moment where they ingeniously figure out how to use limited resources to achieve goal, and so on and so forth.
Gravity, I am happy to report, is an exception to this rule. While the film does centrally focus on (primarily) Ryan’s attempts to survive stranded in space, it avoids the trappings of its peers by avoiding too much self-reflection in moving from point A to Point B. Frankly, Ryan is too damned distressed, the situation being so incredibly distressing , that she nor the audience have much time to ponder the predicament, and its this unabashed forward momentum that is the central strength of Gravity.
Now, it would be utter journalistic malpractice for me to review Gravity without mentioning the technical aspects. I am, especially when it comes to cinema, and out and proud luddite who throws my hat in with the crowd constantly bemoaning the special effects heavy and 3-D gimmicky nature of the modern populist movie. The whole business is abhorrent to me and I believe it to be an artistic cancer that needs to be poisoned to death with a heavy dose of cinematic chemo.
However, in the case of Gravity, I have to do a total and utter reversal. The special effects in this film are stunning, and not in some superfluous “look at that hot car” kind of way, but in a real and meaningful manner that actually makes a difference to the story and the message it conveys. Even the 3-D, which on a very rare occasion (mostly Avatar) has improved films but has never felt fully justified, it absolutely necessary to artistic merits of the film. Gravity, with a big thanks to its excellent cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, is the first film to fully legitimize the heavy use of CGI and 3-D effects, and the best film to take advantage of a purely technological innovation since Jurassic Park.
Alfonso Cuaron, who directed the film and co-wrote its script along with his son Jonas, delivers one hell of a film. It’s not a perfect film, particularly in the rote back story it unspools for its heroine, but when your this involved in the moment-to-moment happenings of a film, it’s hard not too overlook the blemishes. Gravity is a film you’re going to be hearing about a lot this year, and after you see it, it’s a film that is going to stick around in your head for awhile as well.
This article was first posted on September 17, 2013