I love theme park dark rides, motion simulators, and anything that transports me into a completely immersive environment where I’m not just passively observing but actively experiencing. The best Disney park rides (like Soarin’) achieve this, but only for a few fleeting moments. (You might find it odd that I hate roller coasters and free-fall rides…perhaps it’s more accurate to say I like simulated flirtations with death rather than real ones.)
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a feature-length thrill ride—and I don’t mean that in the glib, back-of-the-VHS-box quote way (“Bad Boys II is a high-octane thrill ride!”). It may seem feint praise to compare a film to a Disneyland attraction, but it’s the closest analogy I know, and I mean it as a gushing assessment. My heart rate quickened from the opening text prologue, and by the end of the film my whole body felt tight, my heart racing, my lungs working overtime. The dread of drifting into the cruel vacuum of space, running out of oxygen, and getting shelled by a hailstorm of satellite shrapnel was immediately and relentlessly palpable, and overall amounted to the most physically intense moviegoing experience I think I’ve ever had.
It’s also a visual feast, an ingenious feat of jawdroppingly realistic visual effects and photography, transporting you to the cold rim of earth’s atmosphere—from one angle, a black field of fiercely burning stars, from another a meticulously detailed aerial of planet Earth’s luminescent continents and oceans that swallows your entire field of vision. The 3D effect, normally a useless (and costly) gimmick, here is one of the few times in cinema history it’s been completely earned…dropping the ground from underneath your feet and conveying you through the movie’s three-dimensional, weightless space, with all its debris hurtling past you, the tethers bundling up behind your spacesuit, and the desperately needed space stations gliding just beyond your reach. (When Sandra Bullock’s character cries late in the film, her teardrops are released into our orbit for a transcendent result.)
I keep saying “you” and “your” because Gravity is much more about your experience of the film’s chain of outer space catastrophes than it is about its characters’. That, in one sense, is one of the film’s weaknesses—a slim story and thinly drawn characters—but it’s not a weakness when the film is judged as a thrill ride or “pure cinema,” which it is. It’s an experience, not a story, and the filmmaking achieves that through balletic camerawork and seamless visual effects that are truly unprecedented and rightly stack Gravity on the mantelpiece next to 2001 and Alien.
The camera is a weightless, fluid eye (which we adopt as our own), sometimes omnisciently floating above the action from a distance, sometimes drifting like a piece of space debris around a character’s head, and sometimes fluidly teleporting us inside the helmet of Bullock’s character—granting us her point of view, providing visceral access to her dizzying tumble through the void. The effect is not just an astounding magic trick (constantly provoking the rare moviegoing question, “How did they do that?”), but the key to creating our vicarious experience. The film thrusts us, spinning, out into its terrifying (yet beautiful) nightmare, and we are never watching a 90-minute scrap for survival…we are clawing at it ourselves.
Steven Price’s musical score doubles as the film’s sound design, honoring the reality of objects’ silence in space, and is very effective at a primal level as it comes at us in a wall of deafening sound, then suddenly disappears, as it jumps and races with our heartbeats, and as it underlines occasional moments of soul-baring tenderness, fear, and hope—climaxing with a life-affirming aria for female voice over determined orchestra. Price said most of the palette (even things that sound synthetic) originated in organic instruments or voices, tethering everything back to our humanity even when they are distorted or obscured in the midst of our technological jeopardy.
I know this all probably sounds like a master’s thesis treatment of the IMAX slogan prefacing the movie (“Watch a Movie…Or Be Part of One”), and I usually scoff at that kind of marketing. But Gravity delivered on that normally hyperbolic promise, and in a massive, unparalleled way—from beginning to end. It’s hard not to write a breathless review of this film, when that’s precisely how it left me.