Gravity could most easily be heralded as the best case scenario of what a Hollywood blockbuster could be if studios and filmmakers put more thought into the product they created. It can easily be described by blurb loving cinephiles and critics as a “white knuckle thrill ride” or “a dazzling technical achievement,” and both hyperbolic statements would hold true with carefully reasoned explanation. It can’t really be described as being as deep and profound as some are likely to read into it, but it does something arguably more difficult. It strips down the trappings of major studio bombast from the two and three quarter hour and hopelessly bloated epics studios usually make, and brings things back to a primal man vs. nature based narrative with minimal frills and a tight 90 minute running time.
Somewhere in space, the crew of a space shuttle is working on a patch-up job for a damaged satellite. Mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) supervises the repairs, orbiting his crew via a jetpack, while medical engineer and first time astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) tries to work things out. Suddenly, thanks to an errant Russian missile, debris reigns down upon the crew and ship, totalling their craft, killing most of the crew, and sending Stone hurtling into deep space with limited oxygen. Rescued by Kowalski, who’s running low on fuel in his jetpack, the duo try to make their way to a nearby space station and hopefully to safety without any contact to mission control or anyone who could be remotely close by.
Director Alfonso Curaon (Children of Men) has certainly mastered the art of effectively creating unease for the viewer. Combined with the gorgeous long take efforts of cinematographer and frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuaron throws the minimal story to the wind in favour of emotional jols, suspenseful countdowns to more impending disasters, and the neverending threat of death. The story can be summed up in a single word: danger. And the very beauty of the film lies in that very simplicity.
There are precisely two major characters, and only two that are actually seen on camera. We know almost nothing about Kowalski aside from him being a charming hotshot. We learn only more about Stone when she has time to be alone with her thoughts or when she starts almost hysterically babbling to Kowalski in an effort to take her mind off the situation at hand. There’s something classical about the production and the characters. Clooney works his trademark charms in a role that seems custom made only for someone of his almost old-school Cheshire Cat grin and sly masculinity. Bullock has played the whip smart neophyte thrust into dangerous situations before (Speed, The Net, Demolition Man), but this is the first time she has worked on crafting such a character with such a great director and after coming into her own as an actress.
There’s nothing particularly Earth-shattering about Gravity’s story, nor does there particularly need to be. There’s a problem that needs to be solved or our heroes die. One of them is wrestling with their own personal demons back on Earth and might only be in space to escape from those same psychological issues. There are countdown clocks that the audience is reminded of every few moments to underline the film’s taut sense of urgency. Every potential decision comes down to the final second, and sometimes things don’t work out for the best. The memories of their past will inform their futures. These are the tropes of every single major audience pleasing blockbuster ever created, but Cuaron so wisely never dwells on any of the bullshit that could drag down a lesser film that it all feels relatively fresh and new; not just a novel diversion.
Best viewed on the largest screen humanly possible to capture the scope and grandeur of every frame, Gravity is exactly the kind of blockbuster filmmaking mainstream audiences deserve but never get. It could very well over time gain the same kind of cultish notoriety as King Kong or Jaws in terms of delivering the goods to the viewer and giving audiences just enough to chew on to analyze it afterwards and view it again and again. It gives the audience what they desire in such films without adding tomes worth of mythology and backstory to the proceedings. It isn’t, and could never be, part of a major franchise without stretching pretty far for a story. It goes for the fingernails and heartstrings with equal aplomb. And I see nothing wrong with any of that. After all, that’s why approximately why 95% of us go to the movies. And Gravity is a part of the 2% of films geared at the 95% of moviegoers that are truly excellent and something to be celebrated.