Gravity is a revelatory, stunning cinematic experience. That’s more than enough to make it a great film, and a groundbreaking one, and yet director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest work can’t help but feel a bit disappointing at the same time. So much expertise and vision have been brought to bear, but in some ways the movie’s greatness only makes its flaws more noticeable. Gravity gets so close to being the astounding achievement it wants to be that it’s heartbreaking to watch it fall just short.
Probably the best use of 3D in a narrative film yet, Gravity tells its tense story in about 90 minutes, but the brutal intensity of its suspense is such that it feels much longer. It’s a cliché to praise a tense movie by saying you won’t be able to breathe while watching it, but that compliment has far more relevance when discussing Gravity since the movie’s plot is built around the need to find oxygen.
A team of NASA astronauts, led by veteran commander Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and inexperienced engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), are orbiting high above Earth in the midst of repair work on a satellite. But their operation is cut short when mission control informs them that space debris is hurtling toward them, forcing Kowalsky and Stone to return to their shuttle. Unfortunately, they don’t get back in time: The debris tears the shuttle apart, killing the rest of the crew. Kowalsky and Stone are the only ones left alive, and with their oxygen tanks running low and communication with Earth severed, they must try to make their way to an orbiting space station before their air runs out—or they’re struck by another flurry of debris.
Cuarón has proved himself to be one of our most successful, fluid filmmakers, crafting a surprisingly thoughtful erotic drama with Y Tu Mamá También, producing a deeply dark sci-fi thriller in Children of Men and being responsible for the strongest installment of the Harry Potter franchise (Prisoner of Azkaban). His ability to meld accessibility with personal vision has been consistently rewarding and exciting, and for much of Gravity, he once again delivers muscular mainstream filmmaking with a poetic sensibility.
Working with longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón never stops emphasizing the precariousness of the astronauts’ situation. Even before the initial debris shower, we get a sense of the vast, cold, airless emptiness of space that envelops the characters, leaving them with little margin for error if, say, their protective suits suddenly malfunction. Utilizing long unbroken shots that glide around Kowalsky and Stone, Gravity wants the viewer to be immersed in both the majesty and terror of outer space, and the 3D only heightens the immensity, which is important since physical distance between people and lifesaving objects like space stations becomes vitally important as the stakes escalate.
As Kowalsky and Stone make their arduous journey from their damaged shuttle to the space station, the two characters fall into somewhat familiar types. Clooney’s commander, on his final space mission, is a sarcastic, tough-as-nails guy, and the actor provides his usual self-deprecating charm. By contrast, Stone is on her first mission, but she’s a smart, resourceful woman, aided by Bullock’s no-nonsense performance.
Stone, however, is also burdened with terrible emotional baggage, and it’s here that Gravity stumbles somewhat. The screenplay, written by Cuarón and his son Jonás, doesn’t just want to create a harrowing survival tale but also provide Stone with a chance at a metaphorical rebirth. As we learn early in the astronauts’ trip to the space station, Stone is still haunted by the death of her young daughter—apparently her only family on Earth—and her fight to stay alive in Gravity is sometimes too explicitly connected to her inner struggle to get over that past tragedy.
This connection is, thankfully, not made through treacly flashbacks but through direct dialogue between Kowalsky and Stone—or when Stone talks to herself. Still, Cuarón’s ambitious stab at delivering an epic in which the technical and emotional components are just as vivid—though admirable—comes across a little awkward. Just like last year’s boldest 3D effort, Life of Pi, Gravity strains for a spiritual rapture that can be quite visceral. But because Cuarón’s film is mostly an exercise in precise minimalism—the eerie quiet of space is a constant refrain—the sweeping grandeur of Stone’s personal journey somewhat upsets Gravity’s careful balance.
To be fair, this could also be a matter of preference. Another film of survival, All Is Lost, will be opening a few weeks after Gravity, and that movie (about an unnamed man played by Robert Redford fighting to keep his boat from sinking in the middle of the ocean) largely avoids the sentimentality that creeps into the corners of Cuarón’s opus. This is done in part by giving us no information about the Redford character, who is alone and almost wordless throughout the movie.
Gravity isn’t as austere in its storytelling, and as a result the movie feels a little more conventional, despite the repeatedly extraordinary sequences that Cuarón has put together. Such quibbles are minor but nagging, and they keep Gravity from soaring as high as it could. But that shouldn’t diminish Cuarón’s considerable achievement. Claustrophobic, transporting and unbearably tense, Gravity is a new high-water mark for effects-driven cinema. The worst you can say about the movie is that it’s so grand it spoils you into expecting even more.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Release Date: Oct. 4, 2013