The four-and-a-half year journey Cuarón endured to ensure Gravity was the film he knew it could be has resulted in a work that is an artistic masterpiece and a technological landmark. Easily the best space-set film since 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cuarón matches Kubrick’s revolutionary visual effects with advances of his own that make his characters’ zero gravity environment as real as if they were standing on Earth. While Gravity’s plot can be characterized as sparse, it would be incorrect to make that a criticism of the film. Gravity is about one character’s seemingly impossible journey and in that respect the script, co-written by Cuarón and his son, Jonás, is exactly as it should be.
“Life in space is impossible,” says a title card which appears on the screen as the film opens. With this simple statement, we know that natural order is already being challenged by the mere presence of humans in this lifeless void. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is tempting fate even further as a medical engineer-turned-novice astronaut on her first mission. Accompanied by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), Ryan is on a routine spacewalk when an unimaginable disaster happens, precipitated by an unforeseeable chain of events.
What happens in Gravity isn’t nearly as exciting as what is seen in Gravity. With the aid of groundbreaking visual effects, Cuarón takes filmmaking to an entirely new level, one constrained only by the filmmaker’s imagination. Historically, visual effects teams have had to rely on complicated wire rigging to mimic the appearance of weightlessness. Some filmmakers (notably Ron Howard with Apollo 13) went so far as to simulate zero G by filming inside a specially designed aircraft. These restrictive methods, though, are anathema to Cuarón’s style of filmmaking, particularly his love of long, uninterrupted takes and cinematography that floats in and around the actors.
Instead, Cuarón and his team built giant robotic arms to hold the actors and move them when necessary. Bullock in particular spent many hours in the claw of an enormous contraption that left her with little control over where or how she moved. Cuarón then placed his actors inside what became referred to as “the light box”: a four-panel set that was covered with millions of LED lights that would constantly adjust their strength to imitate the sun, moon or other sources of illumination. The result is breathtakingly beautiful and, apart from actual footage aboard a space station or shuttle, is the closest depiction of what life in space is like.
But, Cuarón does not let the technological accomplishments outshine his vision as an artist. Gravity is a story of survival, specifically the survival of Dr. Ryan Stone who, according to Kowalski, has trouble letting go. Bullock is outstanding and gives one of the best performances of the year. Ryan is terrified and overwhelmed because she is not an astronaut; she is a scientist, and as such she is unprepared to deal with the unbelievable situation which is thrust upon her. Bullock plays Ryan as someone who is emotionally damaged, but has the steely resolve of a Viking. Ryan experiences an unimaginably wide range of emotions over the course of her journey and Bullock’s performance never falters once.
Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki is the yin to Cuarón’s yang. Gravity’s full potential would not have been reached without Lubezki’s wonderful cinematography. Every frame is perfectly composed, Lubezki capturing many fantastic details through deep focus that, in less talented hands, would have been lost leaving the film weaker. Lubezki brings Cuarón’s vision to life with perfect clarity.
Even more surprising, the film’s use of 3D is not only well done but actually serves to enhance the audience’s experience. Particularly in shots where the vast expanse of space is visualized, the three-dimensional images add much depth and scope that has never been felt before.
Gravity is a tremendous feat of cinematic courage and the best film to come out thus far in 2013. Do not wait for DVD. See Gravity in the theater. In 3D. Preferably in IMAX. The price of the ticket will be worth it.