Reel To Reel: Gravity
Going Rate: Worth full price in 3-D and then some
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Red Flags: Mild Language, Two Disturbing Human Images (I don't count scenes of peril as a red flag, but they're too intense for young children)
When 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in 1968, it enveloped audiences with an astoundingly original view of the universe coupled with hints of where we came from, and where we were going. Gravity is every bit as stunning and original, but on a terrifying scale. Yet this film has its influences: along with 2001, it draws from Marooned, Apollo 13, and Alien along with Alfred Hitchcock's non-sci-fi classic Rope. Director Alfonso Cuarón, who co-wrote the screenplay with his son, turns the beautiful void of space into a claustrophobic deathtrap that reminds you of the dangerous of space exploration.
The premise is simple. A team of astronauts are in the middle of a routine space shuttle mission -- as close to routine as space flight can get -- when their shuttle is pelted by debris from a satellite explosion. NASA and others have warned us about the risks of flying space junk: it doesn't float aimlessly; it hurls around the Earth at thousands of miles per hour, meaning any fragment larger than a baseball can do serious damage to orbiting spacecraft. Suddenly the routine mission becomes a survival mission, led by space ace Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and newbie Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock). Kowalski is the cool pro who knows all the moves, and gets to show a few as he flies around on an experimental jetpack during the film's opening scene.
About that scene: it is one continuous shot that runs at least five minutes long. I didn't time it, but it probably runs longer than that. The second shot also runs several minutes long. These are the kinds of long shots Hitchcock used so effectively in Rope, ones people more often attribute to Brian De Palma, but I'd like to see De Palma pull off this flawless blend of special effects and tension. Cuarón knows exactly when to let his shots breathe for the maximum effect. He also embraces the scientific reality that crashes don't make a noise outside of Earth. The result is an unnervingly silent, uninterrupted realism hyphenated by Bullock's breathing and sparse dialogue in a performance that's a lock for an Oscar nomination, and it's a crime if doesn't get one. We feel ourselves floating next to the characters, even inside their space helmets in some sequences before seamlessly venturing out again.
Delving deeper into this film's technical brilliance and hair-raising plot would deflate the bulk of its tension. I can only tell you it does things we have not seen done before on film because technology has finally caught up with imagination. IMDB.com reports the filmmakers used a compositing system to create the space flight scenes which involved putting the actors in a specially-lit box to capture their faces, which were combined with the computer graphics. Yet for all this wizardry, the picture maintains a minimalist structure and a tight narrative. Cuarón shows remarkable restraint for this genre, where pictures try to out-do each other with their scope, relevance, or explosions. Instead, he focuses on the minutia; a small electrical fire on a space station has a freshness to it. Ordinary objects like pens drift around the actors, not only justifying the 3-D component, but reinforce the haunting sense that everything is coming apart around us.
Yes, this film is that good. I thought 2004's Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow was that good too. Do any of you remember that film now? I think I've only applied the term "Instant Classic" to one other film, Minority Report. That film earned it at the time, but times have changed, and now the sci-fi bar just lifted a lot higher.