Gravity, already had a massive amount of hype to live up to even before it opened to just silly good reviews out of the Venice film festival, and of course it doesn't live up to it. It comes, however, about as close to living up to it as a movie possibly could: not nearly as succulent and all-encompassing in its awesomeness as the director's last film, the dystopian religious allegory Children of Men, because how could anyone possibly have expected something like that? It has less to "say", and though it says it very well, there's just not the same sense of having been unscrewed and filled with all kind of complicated, burning feelings about humanity. It's a magnificent, magnificent thriller, though, and one of the most dumbfoundingly impressive technological feats in the 20 years since Jurassic Park put the world on notice about CGI: comparatively, Avatar resembles James Cameron scribbling speech balloons on a prog-rock album cover, and Life of Pi is a crude doodle with a big orange cat no more impressive than your average Garfield strip.
Before I say a word about anything else, though, the sound mix: the very first thing that happens in the movie is a medium close-up of Earth, with an infinitely tiny speck of the space shuttle in the distance, and the very first thing we hear is someone talking, indistinctly, in the far back right. Then it slowly crawls around to the left and then center, getting consistently louder. We are being gradually dropped into the setting as the space shuttle moves closer, being pulled into the only audio possible in a rigorously silent space movie. It's the first time in years that a sound mix was so boldly foregrounded and conceptually perfect that I wanted to start crying and cheering at the same time. From the sound mix. Which continues to be absolute perfection throughout, but nobody wants to read the review that focuses on sound mixing, so I'll shut up about it.
The film takes place in an unspecified year that cannot exist: the U.S. space shuttle program, ended in 2011, is still up and running, while the first Chinese space station, launched later that year and still not permanently manned as of 2013, is in full swing. Here we find mission STS-157 (the actual shuttle program ended at STS-135), led by Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), adding a new program to the Hubble telescope; this installation is headed by the civilian Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a biomedical engineer. An accident involving a Russian satellite has triggered a cloud of metallic debris directly on the same orbital path as the Space Explorer (fictional), and before Kowalski, Stone, or the rest of the unseen crew have a chance to react, their rig and vessel have been torn apart, and Stone is flung into the vastness of space, spinning around madly.
That all happens in the opening shot, by the way. For all that Children of Men boasts some of the most stupefying long takes in the history of the artform, it's banal and unsophisticated compared to Gravity, which includes several different sequences in which a single take proceeds for minutes at a time, and never in simple, clean set-ups, but always with flying, balletic abandon, gliding in towards characters and back away, around objects, through tiny spaces. If I persist in finding Children of Men to have the more impressive and important cinematography, it's because that film had to do everything practically, minus some digital stitching; Gravity's most amazing shots are almost entirely CGI, absent the faces of the actors, and we're basically watching an incredibly realistic, thoughtfully-constructed cartoon for a great deal of the time (though not as much as I'd expected beforehand (in fact, fully half of the movie has a completely physical Bullock on what I imagine are largely physical sets). You can simply do more that way; it's not as ballsy and live-wire as having to do things constrained by real-life physics.
That being said, Gravity doesn't use "you can do anything in CGI" as a crutch, but as a challenge and a dare, and when Cuarón and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki set themselves to doing anything, they end up doing everything: their virtual camera is employed in unbelievably complex movements that shift through varying perspectives in subtle but profoundly effective ways. They mimic traditional effects of editing through the abruptness with which the camera that was moving that way is now moving this way, and in so doing say more with that shift than an edit (which we would expect, and therefore be anesthetised to) could. They evoke with indescribable success the sense of being in the zero-G environment being depicted, all the more so when the film is filling your field of vision on the biggest screen possible in the most vivid 3-D of any mainstream movie since the contemporary 3-D boom began in 2007 (the only movie I can think of that uses the technology to better effect is the German dance documentary Pina), and the sensory overload is complete - I should mention, I didn't have the film filling my field of vision, and it wasn't the biggest screen possible, and I still got totally sucked in by Gravity, ho ho, a pun.
Nothing I've said probably indicates why this isn't all so much film nerd candy - achingly long takes being the kind of thing that normals don't even notice until they are pointed out (and I have firsthand evidence of a normal not realising that the opening shot of Gravity is 17 minutes long), and when they are noticed, being the kind of thing that is held to be "cool" more than anything - but much as it was in Y tu mamá también, the unedited moving camera serves as a way of taking us into the characters (or character, really, this is pretty much entirely the Sandra Bullock Show), situating them in their physical environment, tightening our identification to them and the world as they experience it (this is not as much the case in Children of Men, where the tracking shots tend to serve a narrative rather than a character function). Literally: at a certain point, the camera moves right inside Stone's helmet, and we see things literally from her very eyes, nor is this the only time that the image is occupying something only millimeters away from her exact point of view. We could also argue that creating a completely plausible reality is key for the film's later effectiveness, and that uninterrupted stream of visual information is a way of establishing that reality and playing sleight of hand with the glut of CGI: "no, see, it has to be real, look at how we just shot it from 83 different angles!"
All of these things - the deepened reality of the film plane, the attachment we form to Stone (helped out by Bullock's innate likability, though I don't quite understand why she's being touted as having given such a phenomenal performance - a lovely movie star turn, absolutely, and impressively difficult technically, but I doubt she gave the best performance possible even among the names approached for the part. I am, however, very happy that Blake Lively said no), the tangibility of non-real sets and locations - go a long way to explaining why Gravity works so fucking well as a thriller, so infinitely better than its most obvious forerunners in the "isolated person in an extreme survival situation" genre like Open Water and Frozen. Actually, the mere fact of not having characters so awful that I was rooting for wolves to eat them by the five-minute mark would be enough to make Gravity better than Frozen, but it's much, much deeper than that. It is a visceral movie: the genuine feeling of weightlessness in the visuals makes sure of that, as does the way that our disorientation and Stone's are so nimbly tied together, so that we really feel her situation even if we haven't yet made up our minds if she's sympathetic or not. And the 3-D helps a great deal: when that 17-minute opening shot ends with her being flung into a star-speckled void, she is the lone point of dimension against an impossibly distant backdrop of space and the invisible but tangible plane of the screen, and it feels unbelievable isolated and suffocating; it is almost certainly the single best use of 3-D I have seen in a movie.
Where the film does go a little bit awry is in its attempts to be a rich, tearjerking character drama on top of a survival thriller about being stuck in the unfathomably inhospitable void of space, done mostly through the artless application of a backstory involving a tragically dead daughter, injected just at the right moment to feel tacky (the screenplay, which Cuarón wrote with his son Jonás, is the weakest part of the project - not the story and scenario, mind you, just the screenplay). That being said, a scene were Stone cries and her tears immediately ball up and float off her face - one "hits" the camera lens, in a wonderfully nice touch - is genuinely moving. And Steven Price's generally quite good score, which runs the gamut for horror movie stings to a goopy, soaring anthem to human durability, does a fine job of giving you an emotional workout, making the end in particular seem much more awesome and grave than Lubezki's incredibly dramatic camera already did. Still, the thing it does best is to create an immediate series of strong feelings, not to explore more airy concepts of spirituality and fear of death, which feel a little phoned-in, honestly. The visceral impact is already more than enough to make Gravity a thoroughly involving piece of experiential cinema, and that provides all the human interest necessary. The only places the film bogs down at all are in its most nakedly "watch Sandra feel sad" moments, though something with these kinetic visuals can never be said to "bog down" at all, really.
In short (the time for which was 800 words ago): this is the most engrossing film I've seen in ages. It's more about being intense than about being deep, but that is the privilege of a great thriller, and Gravity is more than a great thriller; it is the greatest thriller made in years and years, a movie using all the finest tools of modern filmmaking at their best advantage to tap into the most primal kind of cinematic emotion-making. It's gorgeously complex and deliciously simple in one and the same breath.