Yesterday, waiting for the lights to go down, I tweeted that I was seeing Gravity, the panic attack that looks like a movie. The ads had been very clear: this is a film about everyone's worst nightmares about what would happen to them in the vacuum of space, alone, adrift, and doomed.
And it was supremely, sometimes almost unbearably, tense. It was also a beautiful sight.
Gravity, for all its seeming simplicity, ends up more nuanced, mostly to its benefit: it's a film with an astounding visual scope and a compact narrative one; it has believable character beats and unbelievably clunky dialogue; it's a near-SF drama and a visceral thriller against an impossible opponent.
The plot is as uncomplicated as they come: after a disaster hits her exploration team mid-Hubble-repair, Doctor Ryan Stone has to survive. Given that Ryan Stone is played by Sandra Bullock, and the movie's 90 minutes long, we know that for a while, at least, it's going to be a largely a matter of "how" rather than "whether." Instead, the tension of each escalating disaster builds within the audience, called upon again and again to realize the frailty of everything against the vacuum of space until their blood is at a quiet boil, and worry with each alarm tone if she'll make it out this time despite knowing better.
(At my screening, around the halfway point, yet another alarm goes off. A guy about four rows ahead of me gasps, with the voice of a man who's not going to make it until the end, "Jesus Christ, come ON!" He made it to the end. He just leaned forward a lot.)
Much of the credit for this tension is due to Sandra Bullock, who gives this role her all. That doesn't always mean she succeeds – she isn't an actress who can transcend her material, so when the dialogue is clunky she can only follow. But this movie isn't about its conversations, thank goodness; it's about the silence of terror, the sounds of panic, the deep, gulping breaths of relief, and in the unrelenting and visceral portrayal of someone trying desperately to survive and certain she won't, Bullock is great. Literally her every breath is important – in a place where oxygen is a primary and finite concern, the sound mix projects every shallow gasp with an immediacy that feels like suffocation – and Bullock makes them all count. She realizes early on that the struggle to get home is probably doomed, an understandably human response that gives weight to every subsequent decision; whenever she despairs, we understand, and whenever she fights, we cross our fingers.
And these wordless downbeats are where Bullock is at her best; the camera close on her as we watch her calculate whether or not she has it in herself to do one last futile thing. The movie's attempts to articulate her character are right out of Central Casting: she lost a daughter and escaped her grief by going to space, and if you think this means she doesn't wonder aloud multiple times about meeting her daughter in heaven, you are mistaken, and if you think she doesn't end up with some Bruce Willis bravado in the back third when somebody assumed the audience needed humor to indicate she's gaining the will to fight, you are mistaken again! But Bullock makes use of every silence available to her to project a more complex and compelling character than the script suggests – someone both more resolute and more shaken. In one of the movie's most striking moments, having given the very last of her energy to reach momentary safety, she strips off her spacesuit in the airlock, and then slowly curls in on herself, floating and only half-conscious; the shift in Bullock from despair to oblivion is palpable, even beautiful.
And beautiful it is. Beautiful it all is.
Though space is at every turn the enemy here, director Alfonso Cuarón makes sure the camera is writing a love letter to the cosmos. (His desire for shooting the film with an eye toward 3D and IMAX is more than justified by the final product; though this isn't always an easy movie to watch, I'm considering going back just to see it that way.) Here, Earth is a multicolored homing beacon twinkling with lights, and the blackness all around us is awash in stars, and even when the characters are cursing space, the camera knows better. The poster variant showing a tiny astronaut in a sea of black is very effective in conveying the moment's panic, but in the movie, even that shot takes place against a backdrop of the Milky Way, a dramatic crescent of color and light. For the spinning astronaut lost in the void, the glimpses of the planet are what gives them bearings, but even then stars are magnificent, and in Gravity, human panic doesn't change that.
And though one or the other of these vistas are omnipresent – Earth fills every friendly window, the stars swamp every doomed affair – and could become merely backdrop for a series of low-G disasters, the film never tires of lingering over them, in wide shots and in porthole glimpses, reminding you of scope and magnificence even when they're the face of the enemy, and every shot is just as vibrant, and feels just as important, as the first. (Steven Price's score, though generally atmospheric, has moments of clear-glass beauty when gazing at the stars, and occasionally reaches out with nearly-overwhelming orchestral work, as if straining to encompass the cosmic scope; it earns it.)
A taut story with a compelling central character inhabiting a visually-stunning environment, Gravity understands the terrors of space, but it knows its wonders, too.