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'Gravity' Review: In Space, No One Can Hear You Contemplate Your Mortality

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | October 4, 2013 | Comments ()


gravity-review.jpg

Alfonso Cuaron hasn’t directed a film since 2006’s Children of Men, but that’s because it took him four and a half years to make his new one, Gravity. The film is so immersed in its effects that it started out as animation telling the story of a pair of astronauts who are stranded in orbit outside the shuttle after a debris storm wrecks their mission. That alone took two years to produce, after which a pair of actors were filmed going through the motions and saying their lines in an attempt to match the pre-mapped camera moves and backgrounds. Then the animators had to redo pretty much everything — Cuaron says they “had to start from scratch” — because what was shot inevitably jarred against what was originally generated. Postproduction took another year to get right. The process was apparently so taxing that it almost broke Cuaron: in those and other interviews, he talks about never wanting to do another space movie again, and remarking that his next film will be “any movie in which characters walk on the floor” is the kind of uneasy joke that could only come with having been in the trenches on this film for too long. Comments like that are the best way to underscore just what Gravity is: a massive, gripping spectacle that overwhelms through sheer size and scope. It’s a stripped-down, kinetic, exhilarating, fully engaging adventure that makes you want to say things like “big-screen thrill ride” unironically even as you realize how stupid that sounds. And it’s important to stress that that’s what this is: a ride, as blissful and exhilarating as you could want, taking you from initial drop to return dock in a smooth 90 minutes. There’s barely an ounce of fat on it. A film programmer I know refers to Gravity as Gimmick: The Movie. This isn’t pejorative, either, and I feel exactly the same way. This is one of the most kinetic film experiences I’ve had in a while, but also one of the most honestly and appropriately superficial. There is exactly as much here as you see.

Cuaron, who wrote the screenplay with his son, Jonas, has crafted an efficient and perfectly paced action movie that’s probably one of the best uses of CGI to date. It’s almost entirely animated, but that’s actually what makes the film work as well as it does. When, say, Optimus Prime transforms from a truck into a giant robot and goes galavanting through the city, part of your brain is dedicated to ignoring the seams between the computer-rendered robot and mayhem and the things you know to exist in the physical world, like dirt and extras and Shia LaBeouf. But by relying so heavily on animation — by presenting entire scenes and sequences that are nothing but — Cuaron’s found a way to provide a film experience that can believably surround you and trick your senses. Transformers look fake; WALL-E looks real. He also uses the animated world to get away with the kind of dazzling camera moves and transitions that would be almost impossible on the ground. Gravity opens with an unbroken shot running at least 15 minutes, the camera soaring around the characters as they perform extra-vehicular activities (space walks), sometimes spinning freely around them and other times locking on their rotation and letting the background swirl. It’s a fantastically executed continuation of the long-take style Cuaron experimented with in Children of Men, but the animation frees Cuaron to do new things. Children of Men had some staggeringly long takes that were usually digitally composited from multiple shots, but Gravity doesn’t need to mask anything because the entire shot itself is, in a way, one big digital mask. When the camera moves in on one of the main characters, we might see the real actor’s face that’s been inserted into the work, but so much of what we see is such finely crafted animation that it feels more cohesive than almost typical blockbusters.

The plot couldn’t be simpler: two astronauts have to survive in space and find a way home. Cuaron flawlessly executes an increasingly life-threatening series of obstacles for Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) to deal with, starting with an onslaught of debris that cripples their ship and leaves them alone in low Earth orbit with their communications severed. She’s low on air, he’s got a manned maneuvering unit, and their best bet is to try and get to the International Space Station (which turns out to be the first of many plans). It’s a chain of jaw-dropping near-misses that make for some of the most uncomfortable, tense, sphincter-tightening viewing in a long time. Cuaron makes expert use of the incomprehensible size of space, often placing characters or landmarks as nothing more than tiny dots that slowly drift closer and come into focus. It is relentless, gripping, heart-pounding; all the things you think people say hyperbolically about movies but that turn out to be totally true.

It’s also one of the only instances I can remember where IMAX and 3-D weren’t just distractions or upsells but a critical part of the experience. Gravity is, after all, a ride designed to deliver specific sensory overloads, and that feeling of being dwarfed by space right along with the characters is so pivotal here. Half the time when I see a 3-D movie I wind up removing the glasses occasionally to see if there’s even that much dimensionality to the image, and to get a sense of how much brightness I might be losing watching a movie through tinted lenses. But those impulses never even occurred to me when I watched Gravity. I felt suspended in space, a helpless victim of the elements. This is what the movie needs; this is what the ride demands. Cuaron marries effects and story with a precision, grace, and economy that’s all too rare in spectacle-driven pictures today. Can you even imagine a summer tentpole clocking at an hour and a half? The nerve and focus it takes to simply say, “This is the story. This is the experience. This is what you’re getting.” It’s phenomenal.

The film’s only stumbles, accordingly, are when the Cuaron men try to inject some awkward backstory into the characters. There are only two people in the film, and its an achievement in its own right that they can ably carry the movie along with the animators, but Stone and Kowalski are not deep people. They’re not meant to be, and they’re at their best when they’re fighting blindly for survival. The casting is perfect here, too: Clooney can play the brave rogue and Bullock the steely but shaky heroine with total ease, relying on muscle memory and the pop culture personas they’ve crafted. Their character comes not in reflection, but in action. We learn everything we need to know about Stone when she panics while maneuvering through space or is slow to respond to an order; we know worlds about Kowalski when he entertains the ground crew with nattering stories about his ex and then trots them out again later to take Stone’s mind off their predicament. Later-act attempts to give Stone a sad personal history feel awkward, as if they were shoehorned in by a writer worried about being upstaged by an animator. In this instance, though, that’s the whole point. Less is infinitely more, and when (e.g.) we see Stone adapt and fight for survival in certain moments, it means everything because we’re locked into that human moment with her. Her fight just to keep going reminds us of the ones we wage every day, and the ones we lose as much as we win. Gravity connects the most when it stops actively trying to connect. It’s a battle, a ride, a pure cinematic event. It may have broken Cuaron a little to bring it to life, but how lucky we are that he did.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Sarah Goodwich

    This movie is SO STUPID! XD

    To begin with, the whole plot "a satellite gets hit by a missile, and blows up, then it blows up other satellites until they all go."
    What the FRACKI?
    How can one satellite blow up by a missile, let alone blow up other satellites-- and STAY IN ORBIT?

    Or she's spinning off the satellite, and then her spinning SLOWS DOWN! I'm PRETTY sure Newton had a law against that.....

    Or this is the big one: when they get to the ISS, she'd holding him up by the tether, and he says "you've got to let me go, I'm pulling you down with me."

    How the HELL can he be falling more than the rest of the station?
    What the HELL do they think-- that the station is suspended in orbit by something, which keeps it from falling? And so since George is about 10 feet closer to the Earth, he's in a stronger gravity?

    These idiots have NO CLUE about ANYTHING!
    This is the DUMBEST MOVIE I'VE EVER SEEN!
    I couldn't even watch it past that part, it was SO STUPID!

  • E Robb

    Since the comments of this article were locked (for good reason; because it was a dumb article) I'd just like to point out how dead wrong it was now that we've seen the movie:

    http://www.pajiba.com/trailers...

  • BobbFrapples

    I watched this film to distract me from a bad night's sleep; I completely forgot that my head ached and my eyes were bleary because I suddenly had adrenaline flowing through my veins. So good!

  • hapl0

    This movie is metaphor porn. And oh, my sphincter is sore.

  • elenaran

    Agree with everything, especially about the use of 3D/IMAX.

    Also, a lot of other big-time directors could learn a thing or two about editing from Cuaron and this film. Can you imagine a 90-minute Peter Jackson movie??

  • Sirilicious

    It was great. It is not a movie that will keep me pondering in the days after, but while i was in the theater, i cried, gasped, laughed, clenched and enjoyed immensly.

    The scene that stuck with me most is in the beginning, when you see Ryan spinning out into the black, without an earthy back drop. FUCK.

    Copy, indeed.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Is it just me or is this the most positive review we have ever read from Daniel? Imagine how good it must be if even he is this effusive. And, of course, beautifully-written as always.

  • BlackRabbit

    Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the
    slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything
    about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would've
    hidden from it in terror.

  • Obtuse

    *POSSIBLE SPOILER*

    REALLY QUITE MINOR.

    I really like how Clooney played a supporting character. One of the reasons this film worked so well is that is was centered around one person.

  • linnyloo

    And I was thinking to myself after I saw it that it was wonderfully refreshing to have an actress over 40 (almost 50! Go Sandy!) carry a film like that.

  • Pitry

    Help me here! So the 3D version plays in one cinema and costs X dollars. The IMAX 3D version plays a more expensive cinema, and due to being IMAX 3D, ends up being almost twice as expensive. I generally dislike 3D movies (although that might not be a problem here - usually it's in fast action sequences, my eyes/ brains simply can't keep up with the input and fast movement ends up being blurry). So: is this worth paying the extra $5 for IMAX 3D? Am I missing some of the experience if I'm watching this in regular 3D?

  • elenaran

    I would say this is one of the only times it is actually worth seeing a movie in 3D

  • I saw it with both and - for once- would recommend the splurge. When so much of the film's WOW comes from the visuals, not much point in seeing it from the cheap seats; save money on another movie. And - at the risk of sounding like my mother - take some lens-wipes with you, unless you love Blur-O-Vision. Jesus, are people LICKING the lenses when they're done?

  • Pitry

    Cheers! Yeah, sounds like this will be the Spend Money movie. Oh, damn you, Hollywood! ;)

  • junierizzle

    I thought it was fine. I didn't blow my mind. There were maybe two really cool shots and the rest is Bullock just floating around.

  • The Mama

    I'm sure this movie is fantastic. I'm sure that it's deep and there are a lot of reasons I should see it, and I'm sure that I could learn some life lessons and maybe have a come to Jesus moment or two about my own life.

    But there's no way in hell I can go see this movie. Just the tv previews alone are enough to give me anxiety.
    When the preview started in the theatre before I saw The Butler, I had to close my eyes.

    No. Just...no.

    Forget Freddie and Jason and stupid Blair Witch or Saw or whatever those dumb movies are these days. THIS is the scariest movie in the world to me.

  • Slash

    I've never understood why people want to go into space. Space is fucking terrifying. I will probably watch the movie, though.

  • e jerry powell

    Shia LaBeouf does not exist in the physical world.

    BECAUSE I SAY SO.

  • dulli1419

    Generally I agree with this review, the visuals are jawdropping and the experience is astoundingly immersive. It's right around

    "The film’s only stumbles, accordingly, are when the Cuaron men try to inject some awkward backstory into the characters."

    that I have to disagree.

    The way the visuals are used, the type of the emergency, the severity of emergency, the way the movie is structured, hell even the name of the movie and the character all allude to and directly deal with Stone's (Bullock) back story. To dismiss it as "shoehorned in" or reduce the experience to simply a "ride" is belittling and unfortunate.

    It's true they are light on backstory, much to the movies benefit, but what they give you can ignite your imagination and stoke your empathy.

    When you go try not to reduce things to a roller coaster. You'll cheat yourself out of the whole picture and you don't want to do that. The character arc is what makes the movie really work.

    Nothing is wasted, not one second, and all of it is about her experience and her growth. Everything means something. That space stuff is just a catalyst and metaphor rolled into one.

    This is not a movie about the awesomeness of space. It's a personal journey. Don't take that away from it.

  • Sarah Goodwich

    Dude, this movie was "Alien" without the alien.
    Even when she's talking into the radio on the ISS, it's a carbon-copy of Sigourney Weaver talking into the "Captain's Log" recorder at the end.
    Gimme a fricking break, this film SUCKED!

  • SPOILERS

    Exactly, I was going to say the same thing. The back story is the movie and that aspect made it one of the most affecting for me in some time. Cuaron made a deeply felt movie about the nature of grief against the backdrop of a rousing survival-thriller. Bullock's portrayal of Ryan's character arc was terrific. I didn't think it was gimmicky at all.

  • spoilers:: I mean, did some people not see the last shot where she "conquers" + the amazing music?????? It was clearly a personal journey. One moment was her fetal position symbolically portraiting her humble feebleness and contrasting that with the ending. This film is art.

  • Justin Kuhn

    this.

  • Sean

    ON my way to theater right now to see.

  • Sean

    I am home now.

    Go see this movie. Tonight, if possible.

  • Yes. It's a fantastic ride, worth the journey and so cool (terrifying) to *feel* the experience of being in space. Could Sandra Bullock have been replaced by ten other actresses? Yes. George was exactly right though. The space ride was fantastic, but I'll admit I found a few moments sickly sweet and even a little corny; most especially the final scene (the music, gah!).

    Also, I thoroughly enjoyed this interview with Cuaron:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • Sirilicious

    I think George could have been replaced by ten other actors too.

    Great Film.

  • Wednesday

    If I go to see this in a theater...am I going to come out of it nauseous?

    Seriously, I am that person who cannot stand behind you at an arcade and watch you play a first-person racing game, because it triggers motion sickness.

    I'd like to see it, even though I really do NOT like Sandra Bullock, but not if I'm going to have to walk out or puke.

  • Sarah Goodwich

    "If I go to see this in a theater...am I going to come out of it nauseous?"

    Only over your lost money and time.

  • Take some Dramamine before hand. My wife gets sick with POV shot movies and games and she was fine when we saw it in 3D.

  • Amandabga

    I saw it last night and I still feel sick! I almost walked out cause I felt so bad. The last 40 min I spent looking at the ground most the movie! The POV shots looking out of her helmet while she floats and does barrel rolls really got to me!

  • Just occurred to me: seeing this movie in a true IMAX theatre might be a much more motion-sickness-triggering experience, if you're prone. I'm thinking of the IMAX theatre at Cedar Point from when I was a kid, when it seemed like you were almost inside the screen (or maybe I was just shorter). The show I saw today was billed as IMAX, but it didn't have that "surrounded/enveloped" feeling: the 3-D effects were more noticeable in the quiet moments, and just made the visuals that much cooler. In the moments when all hell was breaking loose, it was like watching any other high-adrenaline thriller - gripping, certainly, but no sense that YOU were spinning/moving. For what that's worth.

  • Can't predict what your personal tolerance will be, but will warn you that there was - for me - a definite sense of oh-holy-joe-pesci-on-a-triscuit-which-way-is-UP-in-this-friggin-place. Instead of the normal fear of falling, which mostly has to do with landing, you get the horrifying sense of "falling" in a place where there IS no landing, necessarily, ever.
    That - plus 1 or 2 sphincter-snapping "when satellites attack" close-ups - is what messed with me. Which is, obviously, what they intended, and it worked like a sonaofabitch. If you really do NOT like Sandra Bullock, you'll probably suffer more nausea from the rare-but-there emotional backstory moments, than from careening through space.

  • I get motion sickness watching my kids on swings or a carousel, in cars (sometimes even while driving), and I only had one moment of spinny-feeling. YMMV.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    That's a good point, I get motion sickness on children rides at Disneyland.

  • BWeaves

    OK, I just read the spoilers for this movie. I guess nobody took a physics class? Sheesh.

    Don't you dare downvote me. My husband is a rocket scientist. Seriously, he is.

    And Neil deGrasse Tyson agrees with me.

  • Sarah Goodwich

    Hell, this movie's so dumb even BILL NYE will agree with you!
    Like when Clooney is being pulled by Bullock and the ISS, but he's dragging her off-- HOW THE FRICK?

    The station would have to be ACCELERATING AWAY from Clooney in order to have ANY pull!
    But NOTHING WAS MAKING IT ACCELERATE!
    They were PERFECTLY STATIONARY relative to each other!
    And what's with the station catching fire? What, do they fill stations with fire-hazards?
    This movie got DUMBER with every SECOND!

  • Miss Jane

    Perhaps. But here's a nice "review" by Buzz Aldrin that speaks to some of the film's veracity: http://www.hollywoodreporter.c...

  • BWeaves

    Buzz Aldrin talks about moving around the space station. We all know what that is supposed to look like from video.

    I'm talking about the rest of the plot, and I didn't want to talk about spoilers.

  • Sarah Goodwich

    Spoiling this movie would be like farting on a turd, i.e. it's already there.

  • Can only echo the praise. Just got home from seeing this and it's the best damn use of 3D I've ever experienced. Absolutely amazing, immersive ninety minutes.

  • Sarah Goodwich

    Great, then why make it so STUPID?

  • to quote douglas adams: "space...is big. really, really big. you just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. i mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."

    ...which is the problem with so, so many science fiction films. space is really, really big. big and empty. i like the notion of treating the emptiness almost as a character, something akin to the emptiness of the ocean being an overriding element in 'dead calm.' nobody. is coming to help you.

    can't wait to see this.

  • Sarah Goodwich

    Yeah well in this movie, space ISN'T that big. Like satellites and missles are all inches apart from each other, and stacked like dominoes able to blow each other up on impact.
    And then Clooney is like "we'll jet over to the International Space Station, right over there" pointing to it visibly hanging in the distance a few hundred YARDS away!
    Why the frack didn't they just get in the shuttle and FLY HOME?
    Even if everyone was onboard was dead or unconscious, IT STILL WORKED!
    And they might have been able to revive the crew, even; you don't die instantly when you're in space, you just pass out and then slowly suffocate-- VERY slowly.

  • David Ruekberg

    Gee, Sarah, you're really insistent that the movie was stupid. Projection maybe? Didn't you notice that the shuttle windows were blown out and the controls were floating all over the place after the shuttle got wiped out by debris? You don't die instantly when your air gets ripped out of your lungs and the temperature drops to near-absolute zero? I guess it depends on how you define "very" slowly.

  • Sarah Goodwich

    I'm not even going to argue the finer points of science with this POS movie, because there isn't any science.

  • David Ruekberg

    Once again, you seem to be letting your prejudice against this movie blind you to some very basic details, not really having to do with heavy science at all. As I said above, THE WINDOWS OF THE SHUTTLE WERE BLOWN OUT. It's not science. Just facts. You can't fly a shuttle home to earth when it's busted. Anyway, as I said, the movie's not really about science and space and stuff, though it is fairly accurate in that sense (See Aldrin and Reisman's comments on its realism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.... It's about people (http://www.space.com/23062-gra.... Maybe that's why it bothered you.

  • Sarah Goodwich

    No, it's because they didn't give to squats about accuracy. Aldrin etc. are talking about the zero-gravity effects, not playing "man on the flying trapeze" with the ISS, flying from the Hubble to the iSS with a jetpack, etc.

    And they could have at least flown the shuttle it to the ISS or whatever.

    Likewise they could have contacted ground-control through the bluetooths in their helmets, and maybe picked up some extra oxygen-bottles.

    You wouldn't know science if you knew any.

  • robbermaiden

    NOPE NOPE NOPE will never watch this ever. This is 100% a seizing, gut-wrenching fear film for me. (Similarly, the movie Buried. Worst. Fears.) I appreciate its point, but still nope. Space = terrifying.
    *kisses ground/breathes oxygen*

  • malechai

    This is so dumb but I remember watching "Space Camp" about a million years ago: a movie about teenagers who accidentally get launched into space. A stupid premise, but that first glimpse they get when they get into orbit - that endless black expanse... It actually gave me a bit of a panic attack.

    Space. It doesn't fuck around.

  • Sarah Goodwich

    Yeah I saw a lot of stupid space-movies, like "Outland" saying that people will blow up like balloons and explode if they get exposed to the vacuum of space, etc.
    "Gravity" was about 1000 times stupider even than that.

  • I LOVE that you brought this up. For a period of time in 5th grade, "Whip me, beat me, take away my charge cards!" occupied my vocabulary as the funniest expression possible.

  • Will Beaty

    THIS. 7 year old me gave up the dream of being an astronaut because of a late afternoon viewing of Space Camp.

  • go_nelly

    Space Camp = favorite childhood movie ever. made me WANT to be an astronaut, not give up! what's wrong with you?

  • Great review. Could not agree more. I've never experienced a more immersive film. The sheer insignificance of the two characters in relation to space is something no film really captured before. We rarely think about it this way, but the universe is an infinite obstacle for humans. The idea that culture felt the need to invent space aliens as conflict elements seems almost laughable in a "post-Gravity world" (throws self out for use of that phrase). Space is plenty terrifying on its own.

  • Sarah Goodwich

    Pffft we've been in space over 50 years with few mishaps, even when we had to take risks. This film was SO FRICKING STUPID, NOTHING in it was REMOTELY possible!
    Satellites don't get hit by missiles, they don't go ramming into each other and take out the whole plethora of satellites in orbit, and you can ALWAYS contact and astronaut from the ground!
    This was the DUMBEST MOVIE I'VE EVER SEEN!
    Only an IDIOT can believe it's possible!

    Case in point: Sandra Bullock's hanging from the ISS station, and holding onto Clooney by the tether, and he's saying the cliche "you gotta let me know, I'm puling you down!"

    Down WHERE? HOW?
    Where is NO GRAVITY IN SPACE! The station is kept in orbit by ZERO gravity!
    Clooney was about 20 feet closet to earth, TOPS; which would mean that his weight would be exerting....... NOTHING, on that tether!
    Not even a NANOGRAM!

    Oh my FRICKING God, this film was SO STUPID!!!!!

  • David Ruekberg

    There were some unbelievable things, but you exaggerate. It wasn't gravity that was pulling Kowalski (Clooney) away/down/up, it was velocity. He had been knocked away from the shuttle by an explosion, and his momentum was pulling her away as well. Same principal as his jet pack (propulsion, equal and opposite forces and all that).

    Anyway, it doesn't matter, the film was really not about physics, but redemption. Still, I somewhat agree, it would have been nice if it were more realistic. Ryan surviving 2 or 3 showers of jagged space debris was sort of like Rambo running through a gauntlet of snipers without a scratch.

    Still, to my main point, the embryonic shot of Ryan and the conclusion of the movie were what it was all about. It is a myth, in the best sense of the word, about redemption: rebirth and coming home.

  • Sarah Goodwich

    Ok, momentum is a factor of RELATIVE VELOCITY. Looney was moving the same speed as Bollox, so he HAD no momentum relative to her.
    Geez, where did you study physics, Creationism U?

    And you can say that again, "it wasn't about physics!"
    As far as that goes, it was about DELIVERANCE, because they made Newton squeal like a pig!
    As I said, if you wanna see rebirth, watch the end of 2001.
    The only remnant of physics in this movie is "Kessler Syndrome," which says that something like this COULD happen, since 2 objects at the same altitude with different orbits WILL collide-- EVENTUALLY; however this would take a LONG TIME to happen, satellite, as in months to years.

  • David Ruekberg

    I guess your hatred of this movie blinded you to some actual details in the story. Stone and Kowalski were propelled by different factors, e.g. the forces on them were different. Plus, Stone's legs were wrapped in the lines of the parachute, so her momentum was retarded (I won't take the opportunity of using that word to cast aspersions at you, though you've cast them at me). That's why Kowalski was moving faster. As for the rebirth at the end of 2001, it's not explained in the movie, which is one of the flaws of that epic wank; you have to read the book to understand what that giant foetus floating is space is about (or does your physics explain that?).

  • Sarah Goodwich

    The only thing retarded here is YOU, since momentum is a factor of RELATIVE VELOCITY you idiot!
    And as can be plainly seen, their relative velocity is ZERO-- i.e. your IQ, plus fifty!

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