I consider Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to be the worst of the Harry Potter movies. For the longest time I chalked it up to the utter incompetence of the director: Alfonso Cuarón The directing choices for that movie baffle me. And what baffled me even more was how so many movie critics consider that chapter to be the best of the series. So you can imagine how skeptical I was when critics started lavishing praise on his new movie, Gravity.
I was greatly relieved to find that in the case of Gravity, the critics were right.
Some people have been speaking in hyperbole about this film, saying it will change moviemaking. That takes it a little too far, but I acknowledge the visual majesty of this film. Cuarón throws you right into the cold depths of outer space with no set up or introduction. I usually enjoy films that build up more to the grand setting, films that start by getting to know the characters before the real action begins. But that would not work with Cuarón s movie. He is a wizard casting a spell. When the movie begins, you enter into his universe and are trapped, for good or for ill, inside.
The film is straightforward enough. Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a specialist in the medical field who is sent up on the space shuttle with minimal training because they want to use some of her lens designs on the Hubble telescope. George Clooney (at his George Clooney-est) plays veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski who is gamboling around the shuttle in a new space jet pack. But what was a routine mission becomes an epic struggle for survival as a wave of debris from a Russian satellite explosion hits the shuttle.
The plot takes a backseat, however, to the visual spectacle. Very little of what I say can be added to the praise critics have given Cuarón s vision. His view of space is beautiful and deadly. It is a vast abyss and claustrophobic at the same time. The IMAX experience of the film is worth the extra money. I don't think that seeing a flat, 2-D image would do justice to what accomplishes. You can almost feel as if you are flying, floating, and falling with the characters as they hang on for dear life. I felt swept up in the world.
And he creates an actual sense of danger. For many movies, I have to pretend that I don't know the heroes will make it out alive. But there is no way to tell from Cuarón s movie if Stone and Kowalski will make it. This added tension, mixed up with the thrilling visuals, makes for an amazingly powerful and exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat experience. And all of it is compacted into a tight 90-minutes. Not a moment of the movie feels wasted.
I want to also make a note about the acting. Clooney is headlined here, but make no mistake: this is Sandra Bullock's movie. The movie completely about her. During the first half I found her performance acceptable and fine. But about halfway through, she focuses her talent and her skill to give one of the most viscerally emotional performances I have seen on screen. It is, without a doubt, the best performance of her career. There has been Oscar buzz regarding her this year, and it is absolutely deserved.
But what I was not prepared for was the spiritual aspect of the film. Gravity confronts the viewers with the reality of death and their own mortality. In isolation, trapped in the void, who else can be called on but God. And yet Bullock's character we find out, is an atheist. She then says one of the most heartbreaking lines, not only of the movie, but of nearly any movie I've seen (MILD SPOILER AHEAD. SKIP PARAGRAPH IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO READ THE LINE). She asks if anyone will pray for her soul. Then she says, "I've never prayed before. No one ever taught me how." As she says this, her tears float towards the camera in the vacuum of zero gravity. As a teacher of the Catholic faith, it reminded me how important my mission is. It is second nature for me to turn to God for strength, guidance, forgiveness, and praise. But I have to remember that there are so many people who do not know the joy of the Lord simply because no one shared Him with them. How can people meet Jesus if no one will introduce Him.
Cuarón has triumphed with this movie. I now understand his failure with Harry Potter was that he did not understand JK Rowling's world. But having written this movie with his son, he has a complete and total vision of his own that he thoroughly understands how it works and how to execute it.
Gravity is a movie that is unlike most I have seen. It is transportation to another world. It is nerve-wracking thrill-ride. It is a showcase of amazing acting. And it is a meditation on human spirituality.
If I had to sum up this movie in word, from the opening credits to the final shot, it would be this:
4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars