By now, you’ve probably heard or read much of the fanfare that has accompanied Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity into theaters. It’s all true—the stranded-in-space odyssey really is the cinematic milestone that critics and moviegoers are claiming it is. It’s as immersive as movies can get; I don’t remember the last time a film has so completely taken me out of myself and left me quite literally breathless.
The question is, why? Yes, all the obvious elements are in place: stunning cinematography; eye-popping special effects; strong, visceral performances from a pair of intensely likable and identifiable actors; sound design that is almost frightening in its immediacy; the kind of all-around technical wizardry that propels the art and technology of cinema forward; and so on. But lots of movies have impeccable production values and a great cast. What has made Gravity resonate so dramatically?
A couple of reasons come to mind. First and most obviously, Gravity is the most compelling argument so far for the use of 3D as a creative tool rather than just a gimmick. Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki understand a fact that eludes many filmmakers: 3D is more effective when the cinematic space is confined and intimate. This has to do with some very technical things involving words like “interocular” and “parallax” and I don’t even pretend to understand it, but the gist of it is this: There’s not much of a 3D experience beyond 100 meters. That’s why we tend to forget that movies like Thor and Pacific Rim are in 3D after our eyes adjust. The experience just isn’t that pronounced.
Gravity gets this. Yes, the film operates, at some levels, on a vast scale. For me, at least, no movie has ever captured the unfathomable enormity of space as beautifully—or as terrifyingly—as this one does. But it’s also stunningly intimate. Most of the film centers on a lone astronaut’s increasingly desperate attempts to find a way back to Earth after a storm of cosmic debris has disabled her ride and separated her from her mission commander (George Clooney) and her earthbound NASA shot-caller (Ed Harris). The movie alternates between vertigo-inducing shots of medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) floating, tumbling, and spinning through space and claustrophobic scenes inside disabled shuttles and escape pods as she tries to figure out a way home. The scenes inside these broken marvels—accomplished via an innovative 12-pulley system that turned Bullock into a human puppet—are just as impressive as the more obvious spectacles that take place beyond their hatches. Gravity is a movie that lends an epic scale to the minutest detail—a bold tumbling toward the camera is an eerie portent of the disaster that will soon strike, and a free-floating dental plate might be the most disturbing image I’ve seen in a movie theater this year.
The sense of relentless motion that permeates the film is another thing that contributes to Gravity’s impact. There’s no up or down in space; Bullock spends lengthy stretches in freefall, and the camera seems to come untethered right along with her. Luzbecki’s cinematography is as impressive as the post-production 3D effects; it’s inventive in both the metaphorical and literal sense of the word. To accommodate the film’s ever-shifting lighting schemes, Lubezki had to invent new equipment. Manufacturing robots were repurposed in order to accomplish some of the movie’s more astonishing sequences (i.e., almost every scene in the movie). Gravity doesn’t just have an FX crew; its closing credits also list a research and development team.
The other key to Gravity’s success, I think, is the very thing that the unimpressed have criticized: its narrative and structural simplicity. I find that to be a bonus, though. Gravity doesn’t want to be 2001, and it’s not much concerned with pondering our place in the universe. It’s simply about survival, and about connections both lost and re-established: to our environment, to one another, to life. Back on Earth, Stone has experienced a loss that has left her tumbling just as uncontrollably as the debris that cuts her off from her space shuttle. The film isn’t just about whether she can survive, but whether she even wants to. In an era of bloated, two-and-half-hour bladder-busters, it’s kind of refreshing to see a movie that is pared down to so few essential elements—one character, one goal, and 91 brisk minutes of sheer cinematic spectacle.