Gravity displays the amazing power of cinema. To fully appreciate Gravity, experiencing the film in 3D is a must. Like any great story, it's one of survival. Humanity versus an inhospitable environment. Watching the film has the effect of reading Jack London at his best. Director Alfonso Cuaron does an amazing job of depicting the feeling of being in space and capturing the mystical nature of the universe.
Two astronauts, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, an engineer and medical doctor, face catastrophe when a Russian satellite crashes into their space shuttle. In a gripping 20 minute shot we are carried along in a unique sort of terror evoking both helplessness and awe. Clooney's pitch perfect as the veteran astronaut holding it together during a crisis (channeling Dr. Ross from ER). Sandra Bullock's performance does something even more special. She keeps humanity in the story. Countless films sacrifice the human element for an endless parade of banal special effects. But not here. Bullock experiences crisis after crisis in the 93 minutes of Gravity and keeps the audience engaged at every step.
Space itself is the other major character. While experiencing the film, it's easy to to just look on with wonder at the amazing visuals and forget the story. Cuaron includes several shots of the astronauts looking minuscule between the earth and space reminding us of two things: our smallness in comparison to the universe and the beauty of being part of something so mysterious. Films like Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey create a similar sense of wonder. Gravity avoids trying to answer the big philosophical questions, but brings them up in a more natural way. A sudden threat to our existence quickly makes philosophers out of us all!
Comparisons with Kubrick and Cuaron's conceptions of space are inevitable. In 2001, Kubrick portrays the universe as indifferent while suggesting other intelligent life may exist. Cuaron also forces the audience to ponder the indifference of space. In the final 20 minutes he makes us believe humanity can transcend its limitations. Both films end with moving images recalling our own past and future. Cuaron's the humanist; Kubrick the existentialist.
Another irony is that America's current space program faces it's own uncertain future. NASA's glory days of Apollo are long gone and many wonder whether space travel is worth the investment. In 1970, a mission to Mars appeared within easy grasp. Now space missions seem to exist outside of my lifetime. Maybe, we'll see.
As a follow up to Cuaron's Children of Men, Gravity will stand as one of the best films of this decade. All the elements are present for a great film: acting, special effects, sound, music, and all around immersive experience.