Gravity is less a feature film than cinema as experience: a new frontier in filmmaking that will likely appeal to studios trying to attract people to movie theaters.
It must be seen in IMAX. It must be seen in 3D. It must be seen on a screen so large that you feel that you are both drifting in space and cocooned inside a spacesuit. It must be heard with speakers so loud that the theater vibrates. As I say: It must be experienced.
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There is little in the way of plot to deconstruct. It is the most basic human story: survive or die. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts on a spacewalk whose ship is destroyed after the Russians create a debris field by blowing up one of their own satellites. To get home, Bullock and Clooney hop from space station to space station, trying to find a working escape pod that will allow them to return to Earth.
You’ll notice I’ve dispensed with character names. Clooney and Bullock aren’t playing characters so much as exuding their natural charisma. Bullock’s doctor is slightly nervous, slightly harried, and totally competent, speaking in Bullock’s normal folksy way. Clooney turns on the charm: the slight grin; the occasional arched eyebrow; a voice with the timbre and cadence of a man who knows he can take what he wants at any moment.
And it’s better that these two stars basically play themselves. They are the only two people on the screen for most of the film, and Gravity only works because we like being with them. Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, we want these characters to survive. In its own way, Gravity is a reminder of the indefinable thing we call "stardom." Bullock and Clooney have it. Hanks has it. So many others don’t. And Gravity would have collapsed if either role had been filled by one of the have-nots.
Our simple desire to see Bullock and Clooney survive—despite being given little in the way of backstory or what they would leave undone on Earth if they die—is why the experience of Gravity works.
Gravity is tense and claustrophobic, the sort of film that surrounds you in blackness before camera movements send you spinning in cosmic cartwheels and flying past a space station. Director Alfonso Cuarón, helming his first feature since 2006’s Children of Men, toys with the viewer, subtly shifting perspective. One example: As Bullock caroms off into space, we see her spin, and the camera slowly pushes in and begin spinning with her, until … voila! We’re behind Bullock’s faceplate, experiencing her point of view, her panicked breaths mimicking our own.
The effect is overwhelming. It is, at times, too much. Many films advertise themselves as roller coaster rides. But this is the first time I’ve left a theater feeling as if I’d actually just stepped off a roller coaster. My legs wobbled. It took a few minutes to find my bearings. I actually bumped into a pole on the way out, my balance unsteady, my chest tight.
Gravity is an experience, and it is an amazing one. It is a tremendous artistic and technical achievement. It is a monumental piece of filmmaking. Is it a great film? Well, that’s harder to say. It’s difficult to judge a picture that relies as heavily on experience as Gravity does. Watching this on a 50-inch plasma will not be the same as watching it on a sixty feet wide screen.
Granted, you could say the same thing about Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey, monumentally epic films that work better at 70mm than 1080p, but nevertheless still do work at 1080p. I can’t help feeling there’s something slightly different at work with Gravity, however.
Gravity will almost certainly crack my top-ten list for 2013. But I’m not sure I’ll want to watch it in my living room in 2033.