Avoiding Gravity hasn't been an easy task. Rave reviews, preview specials, early theater trailers and overeager enthusiasts have been lurking around every corner. Somehow I felt this was a film that needed to be experienced fresh, yet my expectations were somehow tempered by Alfonso Cuarón's involvement. So I caught the first avant-premiere possible, even submitting myself to a 3D-only screening in the process. I'm so glad I did.
Alfonso Cuarón isn't a bad director per se, his films just never really appealed to me that much. I did appreciate Y Tu Mamá También, yet Harry Potter and Children of Men seriously depleted Cuarón's credit. I feel Cuarón doesn't always make the right choices in order to have the material at hand open up to its true potential. And while the same could be said about Gravity, he gets away with it as Gravity works on a whole other level.
Watching this film in a movie theater has its pros and cons. There really is no better place to experience the grandeur of Cuarón's latest, a big screen and good sound installation are essential to truly undergo Gravity. But conditions have to be perfect, if you're subjected to a mass of taco-munching, chips-crunching, talkative idiots it's going to completely ruin the film's atmosphere. For once we were blessed, the rest of the crowd seemed to understand the need for silence, but I'm pretty sure not everyone is going to end up as lucky as we were.
Gravity is all about size, desolation and big voids. It's about being up in space and being overwhelmed by the beauty and enormity of it all. While watching the film I was reminded about the overview effect, ironically though Gravity does a much better job explaining it than the recounts of the people who actually experienced it. Plotwise we follow three astronauts on a mission gone wrong. When debris hits them full on mid-spacewalk they drift away from their vessel, unable to return home.
Even though I'm not a big fan of 3D (at all, in fact so far Frankenweenie has been the only film to do some justice to the effect), I kind of suspected Gravity could truly benefit from 3D imagery. As distance, size and speed are such an important part of the experience, the 3D images make the surroundings all the more tangible. Even though there's still too much "lame" 3D (like screwdrivers whizzing by), the film is at its best when the camera is dancing around, taking in the scenery and registering the absolute vastness of the setting.
The special effects too are absolutely spectacular. Everything looks amazingly real and solid up in space, even though most of the scenery comes right out of the computer. The camera constantly flirts with its surroundings, drifting and twirling around the characters, exploring every view and angle. There's also a lot of visual trickery ala Irréversible, with elongated scenes and cameras moving through obstacles to sustain the effect. The trickery never feels cheap or gratuitous though, it's always in function of the viewer's immersion.
While the score itself isn't perfect (it's a bit too present at times), the sound engineering is a small work of art. The crackling voice of Clooney, the sounds of the machinery and the often overbearing silence make for a great ambient soundtrack that doesn't rely on melodies or chords to generate an amazing atmosphere. Cuarón makes excellent use of the "there is no sound in space" concept, even when he doesn't keep things completely quiet.
The first hour of Gravity is one of the most gripping experiences I've ever had in a theater. I was almost constantly on the edge of my seat, completely overwhelmed by the vastness of the setting, very much aware that one misstep of the characters would result in a one-way ticket into the infinite void, a massive feeling that weighs on you the entire time they're floating out there in space. It's this immersion that makes Gravity a totally unique experience.
Sadly Cuarón goes off-track during the final 30 minutes. Not content with getting across the mere experience of being in space, he buries some meagre symbolism into his film to make a pretty poor analogy I didn't appreciate in the least. Worse still was the fact that Cuarón jumped to some pretty shaky hoops to sustain this analogy. Where the first hour felt pretty realistic, the final 30 minutes are made up of far-fetched Hollywood drab, completely out of place in a film like this. While I realize that is some pretty harsh criticism, the film itself actually survives Cuarón's poor choices simply because being up there with the characters remains such a unique experience. Even then, the finale does stand in the way of it becoming an ultimate masterpiece.
It's a shame Cuarón wasn't able to give Gravity a fitting ending, but it's only a small disappointment that quickly fades when remembering all the amazing moments that make up the rest of the film. Gravity is a film that needs to be experienced in theaters, preferably in 3D, though I am quite certain it will survive the living room experience just as well. A superb blockbuster that will be hard to match in the coming years, unless Cuarón started a trend here. One can only hope.