There’s a word that is often thrown around in Hollywood, but barely ever truly understood: spectacle. The term is often applied to effects-driven summer fare where cities will crumble and titans will clash, to epics in runtime or budget. In its common usage, what it foretells is a lot of something, and very often, a lot of something very big. What the term actually means to me is something that inspires awe, the sort of film that makes you marvel at what the medium can accomplish and revel in a virtuoso at work. My jaw was dropped throughout Gravity. My palms were sweaty. I left the theater with an elevated pulse and eyes widened. This is what spectacle should mean.
Alfonso Cuaron is a master of perspective, a genius at putting you inside the emotional core of his characters. Beyond that, though, he’s an old hand at breathtaking feats of cinematic ambition, and Gravity is what happens when you let the inmate run the asylum. Opening with a 17-minute long shot that drifts through Earth’s orbit, around a satellite, and at one point, inside the helmet of first-time astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the film basically exists as a thin construct in which Cuaron can play. And play he does, whirling his camera up, down, and around in zero-gravity, mining the vast expanses of space for all they’re worth.
The plot, insofar as the film has one, is as simple as can be. Three astronauts are conducting an installation on a satellite when Russia’s destruction of one of its own satellites goes awry, turning a run of the mill mission into a desperate rush for survival. Ryan and her companion Matt (George Clooney) have only one goal: to get back to Earth alive, and only until their oxygen tanks hit zero to accomplish this task. Matt is all charming nonchalance; he’s an old hat at space travel looking to break the record for most career minutes on a space walk. Ryan is nervous before things go south, and barely constrains her panic once she finds herself detached from the structure and spinning uncontrollably further and further into the unforgiving void of space.
After being advised by various sources I trust, I saw Gravity in IMAX 3D, and it is one of the best movie going choices I have made in a long time. I have never been taken with 3D—in fact, I have never found it to be anything other than a useless distraction that detracts from the cinematic experience and goads directors into the worst kind of showmanship. But not so with Gravity, which makes the 3D integral to the experience. I actually forgot I was wearing the glasses at some points in the film, so immersive was the experience.
Gravity also works as an argument for the utility of the traditional movie star. The script here (by Cuaron and his son Jonas) is little more than functional. It grasps the effectiveness of circularity (with lines calling back on each other and gaining meaning as the film progresses) clearly enough, but the dialogue and to some extent the story itself are means to an end. Yet our shared cultural history with Clooney and Bullock make them easier to buy as fully realized characters, even as the script treats them as little more than lives that are worth saving thrown up against the vastness and lethality of space. Clooney is a charming smart-ass, the sort of man who gets the job done and quips while doing it. We’ve seen him play this role countless times before, and that allows his characterization to be delivered in shorthand without losing any of its effectiveness. This is Clooney in the Clooney role, and we get on board immediately because in some sense, it feels like home.
Bullock has the much harder task of the two, both because her character is burdened with backstory and because her trials more immediately lend themselves to real emotion. She has never been better, though, and she sells every inch of the slight characterization, adding depths of her own she has rarely displayed before. This is a bracing, visceral, painful and hard won performance, the sort needed to anchor a film that often seems perfectly content to drift into the void. The script isn’t particularly good here, but ultimately Gravity’s flaws become insignificant in the face of its accomplishments.
Space is a miraculous setting that immediately disorients us in film. It takes the only thing we have to ground us, our perspective, and completely upends it. Up can be down, down can be up, up and down effectively cease to matter entirely. It takes ambition and ability to render these things realistically, and Cuaron has both in spades. He manages to make his setting both gorgeous and terrifying, breathtaking and breath-taking. “I hate space,” Bullock admits at one point, and it is hard not to understand, yet Clooney’s reverence for it is also contagious. Space is beautiful and deadly, and the film captures this duality with expert precision. Gravity swept me away so powerfully, I actively hoped it would never end. Yet its message of the fragility of human life and the triumph of the human spirit endured long after the credits rolled. I loved sitting in the dark, being completely caught up in Cuaron’s phenomenal vision. But I have rarely left a movie theater so happy to see the sun, and to feel my feet firmly planted on terra firma.