Gravity (2013)

20 minutes into Gravity — which is incidentally around the time the first cut occurs; yes, the film opens with an exceptionally long take — I figured this premise would make a fantastic short film. And, it did. At 20 minutes, I was so hooked that a fire could have broken out in the theater and I might not have noticed. It is so beautiful and so captivating that you find it hard to even blink. You want to stare into the vast abyss forever, and you want to watch the two leads, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, get to do the same.

Of course, they only get about ten minutes in before things start to go wrong. Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is on her first trip into space, while Lt. Matt Kowalski (Clooney) is a veteran. They’re out on a spacewalk, fixing something that’s ultimately inconsequential. They receive a transmission which claims debris from a Russian satellite is coming their way, and they have to abort. They’re not fast enough, and wind up the only survivors of the destruction this debris causes. Their shuttle is destroyed and more satellites are destroyed in a chain reaction, meaning they have no contact with Mission Control. They are alone in space.

This all happens before a cut, remember. This occurs in one take, or at least it gives the appearance of being one take. We probably won’t find out until Gravity reaches home video, assuming that its release comes with bountiful special features. The opening sequence of Gravity is perfect. It will go down in history as one of the must-see opening scenes of all time.

And this is before Gravity starts to get really intense. It’s fascinating and beautiful at this point, but it’s not particularly thrilling. You know that the characters have to survive the initial debris crash, so you never think they’re in considerable danger. It is, however, beautiful and well-staged. What follows is a quest for survival, particularly for the Bullock character (who winds up alone for most of the film), and an almost nonstop pacing which is filled with so many thrills that you’ll struggle to not feel physically exhausted by the time it’s over.

Or, at least, you’ll feel that way if you haven’t been taken out of the film by how silly it winds up being. It has to continue to contrive new situations for its lead character to survive — Murphy’s Law is in full effect — and it gets a little ridiculous by the end. Everything goes wrong, and it does so at such a rapidity that you have to start laughing at it. Unfortunately, that can really take you out of the proceedings, and is Gravity‘s only real problem.

Don’t get me wrong: The film still works, and it works really, really well. But being taken out of the moment — which is so important when it’s a film set in space — hurts its potential for effect. If that happens, you sit back and appreciate its beauty, wonder exactly how they made each shot, and ponder how realistic the film truly is. To that middle point, I recommend you sit through the credits and pay attention to the different jobs listed. There will be many you’ve probably never seen.

Gravity wants to do a few things. It wants to give the illusion that its lead actors truly are wandering through space. It desires to provide a touching human drama, brought through in the characters’ fight for survival. And it hopes to thrill you from start to finish while captivating your senses through its filmmakers’ eye for shot composition. To most extents, it does all of this wonderfully. It’s only when it continues to throw new issues at every turn at its characters that it becomes almost too silly to take seriously.

It does make you feel like its characters are truly in space. The way that they float around, the way that the objects around them move — it all gives the appearance that the film is occurring in space. It might do this better than any other movie that has yet been released. The 3D enhances this, as random items and debris move around the protagonists. The vastness of space is wonderfully created, and it has been so lovingly crafted, with such detail, that you won’t find a single moment that isn’t gorgeous.

And, at its core, is Sandra Bullock, who is a shoe-in for a Best Actress nomination. Yes, like many I scoffed at the idea of Sandra Bullock alone in space for 90 minutes — it’s more like 65 minutes, anyway — but she pulls it off, going through not only the range of emotions one might expect but doing so with the camera often so close to her face, all while participating in extremely lengthy takes and many scenes which seem to be physically demanding.

Gravity is a phenomenal visual experience, a great drama, exhilarating from start to finish — assuming the constant barrage of plot contrivances don’t bug you or make the film too silly for you to take — and is actually one of the few films that benefits from 3D. It will lose something on home video, too, even if I can’t wait to see how many of the scenes in the film were created once it gets its home release. I recommend seeing Gravity in 3D and at the cinema. You’ll be really glad you did.

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