Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is one of the most dazzling films I have seen in a long while. I have complained in recent years how modern special effects and the over-reliance of CGI in most effects-driven movies feel automated and lightweight. Gravity has the best special effects I've seen in a feature film since Avatar. James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster charged into theaters touting its own greatness, happy to declare itself a game-changer. Gravity, however, silently and gracefully dancing onto the screen, may actually be that rarest of beasts: An actual game-changer. I hate to lean on the well-worn crit word “stunning,” but Gravity is a stunning technical achievement.
Cuarón uses his camera (and simulated digital facsimiles) with a light and balletic hand. He encircles his space-bound astronauts with an enthused virtuosity that other filmmakers aren't ambitious enough to try. In his film Children of Men, Cuarón made a special point of employing extra-long takes and swooping, unbroken camera movements that were included merely to wow onlooking cinematographers, and served little aesthetic function. In Gravity, set in orbit, largely in the vacuum of space, the unbroken takes and swirling cameras give the viewer a palpable sense of weightlessness. This is finally a dazzling digital camera trick that is being employed for a straightforward aesthetic purpose and not for audience-baiting, meaningless trickery.
What's more – and I never thought I'd say this, given how much I detest the over-use of the gimmick – the 3-D is spectacular. This is a film that finally uses 3-D correctly. It throws little things out at the audience for giggles (pencils and toys and even tears float out right in the audience's face), while pushing distant things way into the background. The setups are all centrally framed, allowing the 3-D to actually work for itself. 3-D gives depth to an image, but it's so rare that filmmakers use it to show actual depth of field. When something is far away, it actually looks far away.
In the early days of polarized 3-D (i.e. the kind that abandoned the old anaglyph red-and-blue format), films were usually very carefully staged, setting up object within a frame so that the audience could appreciate it with the gimmick. Few feature films have managed to find that same balance until Gravity. I recommend you see the film in 3-D on a larger IMAX screen. For the first time, all the gimmicks add to the film.
You may have noticed that I have just written four paragraphs about the Gravity's undeniable technical achievements, and have not yet addressed the story or the emotional impact of the film. This is because Gravity – for all its teary moments and portentous dubstep opera music – is at heart a disaster flick. On a very fundamental level, Gravity is a spiritual cousin of something like Emmerich's 2012. Or perhaps more accurately Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away. A simple (yet astonishingly graceful) tale of survival. This is not a bad thing, as disaster and survival flicks can be exhilarating, but the genre doesn't necessarily lend itself to the most heartfelt scenarios.
As such, Gravity doesn't quite penetrate all the way. Cuarón has always been a stylist over a storyteller, and paints technics rather than weaving yarns. Gravity is the director's most accomplished and stylish film yet. But at the end, you'll be marveling over the visuals more than you will be sympathizing with Sandra Bullock's on-screen cipher. When she weeps, her tears float through the air and stick to the camera. There is a poetry to that, I suppose, but it also elicited more than a few titters from the audience at my screening.
Gravity is about a greenhorn astronaut (Sandra Bullock) who is bombarded by flying space debris while working on the exterior of her shuttle, and spends the bulk of the film recovering from the plight with the help of her calm and humorous commanding officer (George Clooney), and the ever-dwindling set of resources. Every obstacle is a ticking clock, and every missed chance at rescue a seemingly final blow. You'll squeeze your chair. You'll feel like you're on a ride. More than anything, you'll have fun.
As for the emotional gravity, I suppose it will do with what it has.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.