The thing about exploring space, that we often forget, is that it’s dangerous. We are not supposed to be in outer space; we’re supposed to be sitting on a little blue marble which undeniably has its problems, but isn’t a tiny chunk of debris away from ejecting us all into a harsh, life-crushing vacuum. So if you go up there, you’re risking death every second, something that Gravity brutally underlines every harsh, glorious second it’s on the screen. Take notes, Hollywood: This is how you make an effects-heavy blockbuster.
Gravity is, at root, a story about human survival and stress. Doctor Ryan Stone is just trying to install the system she’s spent all her life building on the Hubble, when things go deeply, horribly, nightmarishly wrong. A Russian satellite takedown has sent piles of debris screaming through orbit, and it promptly shreds the Explorer and most of its crew.
And this is just the start of the bad news. Gravity, on one level, is a survival thriller with an intensity few movies can match because the stakes are so high and yet so simple: Get out or die. But on another level, it’s a movie about how we try to survive when the painful and inevitable moments being a human being will inevitably come along.
It also happens to be one of the most amazing films, visually, in recent memory. Alfonso Cuaron is not a flashy director, really; even when he uses incredibly long shots, as he does here, he doesn’t do it because it looks cool or he thinks long takes are awesome. Here he does it because he wants to distract you with cuts as little as humanly possible, and there’s just so much to cram into the frame that he has to keep moving. There are very few actual edits in the movie, and yet it only brushes ninety minutes.
Similarly, the effects are stunning, a love letter to the planet we live on as seen from a distance even as it’s simultaneously trashing basically everything we’ve got in orbit. Cuaron puts shots of stunning beauty right next to some of the lowest moments Stone experiences, and he makes the scenes of destruction even more heart-rendering and troubling.
Finally, if Sandra Bullock doesn’t get the Oscar, it’s going to be a crime. She has to carry this entire movie for ninety straight minutes, and underplays it carefully; this is undeniably the performance of her career. George Clooney helps a lot too as the macho, calm Kowalski, but in the long run, this is Bullock’s show.
The best compliment you can issue a movie is that it’s over too quickly, and that’s Gravity in a nutshell. This is what we want effects-laden blockbusters to be; emotionally affecting, artful without being flashy, and taking us somewhere we haven’t been. Whether you care about space or great movies, it’s the movie to see.