I think 90 minutes is a perfect movie length. Many of my favorite films clock in between 90 and 100 minutes-enough time to tell a story, but short enough to encourage cutting scenes that slow down the pace without adding anything. Gravity, the latest film from director Alfonso Cuarón, is just 90 minutes long, but in that time it takes the audience on an emotional and suspenseful journey through space.
Gravity opens on a trio of astronauts carrying out a mission to install a devise developed by Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). In the midst of their spacewalk, Stone, mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), and another scientist, Shariff (Paul Sharma), are alerted that debris from a satellite accident is headed toward them faster than a speeding bullet. Their attempt to escape fails, killing Shariff and sending Stone spinning, untethered, into space. Fortunately, Kowalski, a seasoned astronaut (on the verge of breaking the record for spacewalking), recovers Stone and the two of them have to figure out how to get back to Earth despite a broken shuttle and killer debris passing their way every 90 minutes.
This film is a great example of using special effects to tell a story rather than using a story as an excuse for special effects. No doubt, Gravity is a scientifically innovative and visually stunning film. Almost the entire story takes place in outer-space with a range of intense and disorienting situations. But there’s more to the film than the technology. While we know little of Dr. Stone and Lt. Kowalski’s lives, their characters are developed in such a way that their actions make sense and we deeply care for their well-being. That alone is no small feat. But to pair such nuanced character studies with the gripping and perilous action of the plot makes Gravity an intense, poignant, and satisfying cinematic experience.
Further, the story itself is pared down, not only through the compact 90 minute runtime, but also because for about 85 of those minutes the audience follows just two characters, more often just one. In this way, the intensity of the action is increased by the emphasis on partnership or solitude, inviting us to invest even further in these two people. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock do a stellar job of bringing these well-written characters to life. It doesn’t hurt that they each have more than their fair share of charm, but they can also portray a range and depth of emotion that help us understand the complicated experiences their characters go through. Bullock was especially wonderful in the physicality of her role. The way she played with zero gravity made me feel the exhaustion Dr. Stone felt while still admiring her strength and graceful movements.
Another aspect of Gravity worth noting is that Alfonso Cuarón insisted on Dr. Stone being a woman, even fighting with studios who wanted a male lead. What is particularly successful about this female lead, however, is that in no moment could the character not have been a man. Her story, her skills, and her personality are not written in any way that draws attention to her sex. Therefore, the audience is never lead to think that she is heroic “for a girl.” Kowalski’s comparative skill and level-headedness come from extensive experience. Stone has the answers she needs, but she has not had the practice to build her confidence. In short, our lead character happens to be a woman, but that fact is significant only because—somehow–that fact is novel.
Despite its many qualities, there are a couple points, especially toward the end that aren’t as technically successful as the rest of the film. The final moments are a bit over played when mirroring the silence of the opening moments might have been more striking. Still, and I’m trying not to give it all away, the ending does emphasize gravity itself in a way that is both visually interesting and emotionally satisfying.
For its gorgeous visuals, character development, wonderful performances, and interesting sound effects, but a few moments that tugged a bit unnecessarily on my already taut heartstrings, I rate Gravity 4.5/5 stars.
Gravity was directed and written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonas Cuarón. It runs 90 minutes and is rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language.
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