Years from now, movie lovers will ask each other, "Where were you when you saw 'Gravity?'" just like people ask each other about the JFK assassination, if the JFK assassination were, you know, a good thing.
That's not necessarily saying "Gravity" is a classic film. Not necessarily saying that it's a great film (although I personally think it's the latter). But it is a landmark film. What is it we so often demand of movies - show us something we've never seen before. "Gravity" does more than show us. It takes us there, plugs us in to the surroundings, and tears down the barriers between audience and movie, between seat and screen. Few movies I can think of create such an intensely physical experience, transferring the experience of characters to our very bones.
This is what the monoliths in "2001: A Space Odyssey" pointed to.
Linear as an arrow, the script from director Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonas tells a story of sheer survival that allows us to wonder, "Could I do this?" Two astronauts (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) are in space conducting a space walk for space repairs on their space shuttle when space debris strikes (doesn't everything seem cooler with the word space?). They're robbed of all contact with Earth. Their options don't extend far beyond floating around, which they do, a lot. Alfonso and Jonas cleanly construct the ensuing 75 minutes as one thing needing to happen for the next thing to happen, otherwise no more things will happen.
There are no cuts to mission control. No flashbacks to Bullock's life back on our planet that spends the movie so cruelly in view. What little dose of spiritualism Cuarón offers could just as easily be written off as a dream. But purged of all distractions, "Gravity" finds the infinite. Lets not undersell what Cuarón accomplished here - by shooting his actors floating almost entirely outside their crafts (how often do you see that in outer space movies?), by allowing his camera to roam free through the 3D axis, by shooting his trademarked long takes with views that wobble between full background shots of Earth and the vast nothingness of stars within the same moment, and by using nonstop special effects to create a thoroughly meditative experience instead of a barrage of itself, he has done nothing less than change the very language of film.
Taken alone, that is impressive enough. But what makes "Gravity" monumental, borderline miraculous even, is Cuarón and his team do it so seamlessly. Think about your favorite special effects landmarks. The Death Star Trench Run in "Star Wars." The first T-Rex attack in "Jurassic Park." Maybe the White House explosion in "Independence Day," I dunno. Those moments are accompanied with the requisite awe. "Movie magic," as us industry insiders call it. But they also beg the immediate question, "How'd they do that?" It's part of the fun, wondering how a filmmaker pulled something off.
"Gravity" wants none of that nonsense. Once we're there, we're there, and we are absorbed. Cuarón's effects don't call attention to themselves. Instead they dazzlingly blend to create a world that feels legitimate and encompassing. It existed before Clooney and Bullock showed up, and it'll exist after they leave. As far as we're concerned, they shot this movie in space. Don't ruin the fantasy. Don't even try.
This is where 3D becomes absolutely necessary. Trust me on this one - dig up whatever spare change you can find and splurge on the glasses. You owe yourself the spectacle. Seeing "Gravity" in 3D is the true immersive experience this tool has been waiting for, what James Cameron promised it could be. Set free from the confines of a flat plane, Cuarón's camera pivots, flips, darts, and is sometimes content to simply float and let the vastness wash over us.
It's terrifying. It's sweat-inducing. But it's also humbling and strangely inspiring, a deeply resonant experience that a week later, I'm still struggling to describe cogently. "Gravity" steadfastly never bends to emotional manipulation. When space stations are shattered by passing debris, it's with an eerie and poetic lack of sound simply because there's no sound in space. When Bullock and Clooney find themselves separated early on, it's with the cold tacitness that they might remain lost and float until they die because it's space and there's no gravity and that's just how it is.
Earth looms large throughout the movie's running time, sometimes filling the entire background. It plays like a joke that all these two people need to do is set foot back on what is so clearly in front of them. Really, outer space begins only 80 or so miles above our heads. A short road trip to visit your grandparents or see some band you like but don't even love. But once "Gravity" slips that bond, the rules change and a feeling of total, awesome insignificance seeps in.
All begging the question of, "Why?" Why make this movie? Is it simply a special effects exercise? If so, well, bravo. It goes beyond that, though. Our actions on Earth can't help but feel important. It's all we know. But the universe is so vast and old and mystifying, and our time as a member of it is so brief. Against this barren, endless, merciless, gorgeous void, we border on nonexistence. The infinite stretches on, and we don't.
Within that framework, Cuarón chooses survival for his narrative thrust, and accompanied by an emotionally grounded, powerhouse performance from Bullock, he plunges us to a visceral situation in that very void where we have to shed the essence of who we thought we were for something stronger. We remain insignificant. Yet amongst the stars, what we do matters, if only because it matters to us. I don't know what you'll get from "Gravity." Maybe only thrills. It's a personal experience. But that's what it meant to me.
As a special effects spectacle seen on the biggest possible screen, "Gravity" is a stunner. As a cinematic experience, it brushes on transcendence.