Believe the hype. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is a stunning achievement, guaranteed to leave you breathless as you walk out of the theater, and running back to see it again. It's not often you see a film that leaves you gobsmacked, wondering how did they even do that? But this is a film that qualifies more as a full on experience, and demands to be seen in a theater, preferably on the biggest screen possible.
Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first space mission, with George Clooney as veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski on his last, and the first time we see them they're floating miles above the earth, working repairs on the Hubble Telescope. The film drops you right into the experience as we feel instantly that we're floating along with them, in awe and completely enveloped by the CG effects that never for one moment feel less than perfectly real. It's only a few minutes before disaster strikes however, when debris from an exploding Russian satellite comes hurling into their path and setting them on an emergency course to survive in any way that they can.
It's a simple plot really, like an old-fashioned disaster movie set in space, but with just two characters in an environment that most of us will never see, and have never seen on screen with this kind of effect. In that respect, the casting is crucial, and taking a page from Hitchcock's playbook, Cuaron cast two big movie stars that we already know and immediately connect with, which is a brilliant move in a movie that's set in a place so foreign to us. I don't think it would have worked as well with unknown actors, and both Bullock and Clooney are aces in this. George Clooney basically plays himself in space but it's never been more reassuring to see someone we know in a position of authority on this dangerous thrill ride, and Sandra Bullock really steps up and delivers the best performance of her career by far. The movie is carried entirely by her more than Clooney, and she evokes our sympathy, terror, and emotional identification as she undertakes what's really the story of her personal evolution in this harrowing journey, experiencing every emotion under the sun (pun intended) in her fight to survive. Not to mention how unique and notable it is that a woman can be the hero in this kind of adventure (not since Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien have we seen it), and she doesn't even have to act like a man in order to elicit the audience's involvement in her situation. It's a great performance, and I'd never thought I'd say this a few years ago, but by this time next year Sandra Bulllock may have two Oscars under her belt.
Of course, even with the great acting, Alfonso Cuaron is the true star of this film, and the feat of direction here is nothing short of astonishing. The effects are seamlessly edited, with long tracking shots showing all angles of the action at all times and placing us in a "you are there" state of being never before felt in a motion picture that amounts to science fiction. The cinematography is breathtaking (with the great Emmanuel Lubezki set to finally win his long overdue Oscar for this I'm sure), and the technical achievement at all levels, from the score to the sound effects, is really quite something to behold. The great thing about Cuaron's filmography (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess) is that as much of an effects master as he is, he never loses the emotional component at the heart of his character's journeys, and as a result you care more about Ryan Stone's personal triumph than you do, say, any of the big blue people in Avatar.
It's an astounding cinematic achievement, the best movie of the year and at a lean 90 minutes, begs to be seen on a big screen again and again. I think I'll go back this week.
* * * *