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.