I stay until the end credits of every film I see, whether or not Nick Fury is going to show up. Last night I discovered that I had inadvertently watched Gravity with at least some of the visual effects team. As their names came up they broke into cheers and whoops, and phones flashed because they kept taking picture of their names. That was when I started crying.
I mostly kept it together. I don’t think anyone realized I was crying, but I spent a large portion of Gravity holding my breath, clenching my muscles, pushing back into the seat to try to escape, and the whole film created such an emotional tension that to hear them cheering for each other, and then to see other audience members applaud them as they realized who they were, sort of put a crack in the dam.
And by the way, they deserved every whoop, and every award they will surely get. Gravity is extraordinary. To say that it’s terrifying or visceral or any of those things would do it a disservice. Gravity’s director, Alfonso Cuarón, already created two of the most tension-filled movie moments I can remember in 2006’s Children of Men. The first, when the main characters’ truck is ambushed, is a masterpiece of POV-shots, chaos, and claustrophobia. The second and even more affecting moment comes toward the end, when an entire platoon of soldiers stops fighting (if only momentarily) in the face of a miraculous event. These two scenes anchored the rest of the film, helping us to understand what was truly at stake in a world where humans were slowly going extinct. In Gravity, Cuarón places us in an impossible-to-imagine environment and ratchets up the danger, forcing us to live there for an almost unendurable amount of time.
Is it a horror film? It’s certainly the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. Is it uplifting? Fuck yeah. Is it a celebration of human ingenuity that I mentioned I requested in our fall preview yesterday? …Not so much. Everyone in this film uses their brainmeats (and the film definitely expects its audience to keep up) but the thing about this that makes it horrific (and this is clear from the first moments of the film, so I’m not spoiling anything) is that space simply is. It is implacable. It is unfeeling. There is just you, the suit, and the nothingness outside of a very thin wall of fabric and polycarbonate.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first space mission, fixing equipment for the International Space Station. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a veteran astronaut trying to maximize his spacewalking time.
The brilliant thing is the way Cuarón uses the action to tell an emotional story. Dr. Stone has a lesson to learn, and she embodies that learning process. Every time a hand grasps a rail, or a helmet snaps into place, you feel the effort behind it. Everything is difficult for Stone, each new aspect of being an astronaut is a challenge, and she has to make minute-to-minute decisions about whether those challenges are even worth it, or if giving up is the better option. Sandra Bullock is fantastic as Stone, a fully-formed female character with a history that plays itself out in her present, a career that she loves enough to risk going into space, and a wonderful mix of stark vulnerability and odd flashes of humor that make her fear all the more harrowing.
There’s very little else that I can say without getting into spoiler-infested waters, so I’ll sum up: You should see this film. You should definitely see it in a theater, with people whom you can trust to share an experience, without needing to talk the second the credits roll up. I’m also surprising myself by recommending that people see it in IMAX 3D. I’m not usually a fan of 3D, but Cuarón uses it as instrument of empathy: you’re in Stone’s spacesuit with her, inside the helmet, watching the glass fog up, trying to orient yourself as Earth and stars spin and there is nothing to hold onto. Nothing to stop your momentum. Your heart is beating, and you can hear yourself trying to breathe.
Leah Schnelbach has decided she’s only going into space if there are porcine Muppets involved. You can see her on Twitter occasionally.