I once had a film professor who told me that movies should overwhelm you, fully absorb you into them, and truly become larger than reality. For this reason, he opposed watching a movie on small media devices, feeling as though the experience is damaged in the process. I always agreed with him. But I never agreed with him so firmly until I saw Gravity, the epic by visionary director Alfonso Cuarón, who very well may have just crafted his masterpiece. Watching Gravity on anything other than a high quality, large screen would be a sin from which there is no penance, dooming you to lose the full effect of one of the most moving works to ever grace cinema.
Rarely is every aspect of a film–from the acting, direction, photography, and beyond–in such perfect sync, uniting harmoniously to craft something that will undoubtedly become timeless. Gravity is one of the most awesome things I have ever witnessed. It’s a visceral film that feels more like a lucid dream, and it’ll stand as a compelling example of purely visual storytelling.
The story is, at least on the surface, a simple one, taking place in near real-time, but foregoing the gimmick that typically accompanies this idea. On a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are caught in a cascade of debris caused by a missile strike, which is systematically wiping out everything in low Earth orbit. As time goes on, these characters attempt to survive one terrible event after the other, culminating in one of the most intense films I have ever seen.
We don’t know a whole lot about who either of these astronauts are, learning as much as we can about them from an hour and a half of knowing them. That being said, we know a few important details about their lives. We know that Kowalski is set to retire and can’t seem to accept that this is his last time ever seeing Earth from above. Where space is largely associated with death throughout the course of the film, for Kowalski space is a place of peace and beauty. He seems comfortable with the notion of dying and being someplace he loves is likely the reason for that.
As for Stone, we know she is dealing with the loss of her daughter, who died suddenly in a random accident at school. The nature of her young child’s death serves as a reminder of how fleeting life can be and how an individual can still find a reason to live, despite losing the thing they were once living for.
As these astronauts make their way to the International Space Station and then the Chinese space station, we witness the commonalities that all men share, including a display of various religious icons. One of the most powerful scenes features Dr. Stone listening to a transmission from a radio in China, taking comfort in hearing the happy voice of a man, despite not being able to communicate with him due to language barriers. The film brings to the forefront a sense of unity, a sense that all people share the same pleasures and pain as part of the human condition.
There are absolutely some spiritual themes present here; one scene walks the line of a supernatural explanation, but does so without betraying the realism. Be it the looming death caused by a domino effect of destruction, a spiritual presence from above, or the sheer vastness of space, an individual life feels very small when compared to larger forces. Yet, despite how unimportant a life may seem when put in grand perspective, the human will to survive pushes through, determined to defeat insurmountable odds and defy the boundaries of what is possible.
Using Earth as a backdrop creates a necessary sense of comfort, providing hope and standing out from the darkness of space. It’s so close that you can almost touch it. Despite how hard it is to actually reach, having home in the background serves as a reminder of why fighting for survival is so important.
The way Cuarón contrasts the expansiveness of space with the claustrophobic nature of the spacesuit to create tension left me feeling small and anxious, overwhelmed by the scope of everything around me. Using long, continuous shots, he made me feel like I was actually there to observe this tragedy as it unfolded. Combined with a soundtrack that barely shatters the silence of space, my suspension of disbelief has never been so fully intact. I’ve never felt so completely involved in a film.
Gravity is a death march. And movies like this can only conclude in a couple of ways: the characters need to die, or the ending needs to blow you away. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that Gravity’s last moments moved me in a way that’s nigh impossible to articulate. This is one hell of an inspirational work, invoking the spirit of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” which encourages battling against death, even if it’s a futile effort. It’s often painful to watch for sure, but it’s a part of human nature that’s important to explore. If ever a film were to move me spiritually, it would be this one. I’ve simply never seen anything like it.