It probably says something about the current state of Hollywood blockbusters that the most emotionally intense motion pictures of 2013 so far have been ones that, coincidentally, mainly has a cast of two. Both Before Midnight and Gravity have other minor characters, but the core of both narratives is a duo. In both cases, they are a man and a woman trying to survive. In Linklater's film, it's a married couple trying to survive their relationship with each other; in Gravity, it's two astronauts trying to get back to Earth after an accident in orbit leaves them stranded out amongst the stars. In either scenario, the stakes are high.
Gravity is the latest from Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, his first since 2006's superb Children of Men. This one stars George Clooney as a veteran astronaut who will retire once they land and Sandra Bullock as a research scientist on her first outer space excursion. Their mission is to add a new link-up to the Hubble Telescope, a task that is nearly done when space debris from an accident thousands of miles away comes rushing into their airspace. It cuts them off from their ship, their crew, and mission control, and the pair have to think fast to devise a new way to get out of orbit and safely home.
The set-up sounds simple and in some ways even familiar, but from such simple seeds great things grow. Gravity's journey to safety is a white-knuckle thrill ride, full of unforeseen obstacles, impossible dangers, and just enough spare moments for the characters to catch their breath and remind us that they are human. Clooney and Bullock have been perfectly cast to play to their strengths. He is the charming life support by whose example the determined woman finds her strength to carry on--though, don't get it twisted, it's not a gender thing. Bullock is far from a damsel in distress. The disparity is experience. Both astronauts bring a unique skill set to their quest for survival.
Much credit should actually be given to both actors for finding a way to stand out and not be lost amongst Cuarón's gobsmacking special effects. That's perhaps where their pre-programmed personalities as box office stars work in their favor. Less charismatic performers would be absorbed by Gravity's widescreen backdrops and realistic re-creations of space stations, shuttles, and satellites. Even in an age when digital effects wizards can make any creature, real or imagined, come to life with a combination of artfully chosen keystrokes, Cuarón manufactures an illusion of reality that is remarkable in its attention to detail. Imagine Clooney and Bullock dropped into For All Mankind a la Forrest Gump, unwitting witnesses to space history. That is just a starting point for Gravity.
Comparisons to the effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey are apt, with Cuarón even giving subtle nods to Kubrick at various times throughout Gravity. (Sandra Bullock is the space baby!) There is a realism to both films that allows them to outdistance most shoot-'em-up space operas, and Cuarón easily one-ups James Cameron, his closest competitor in the modern 3D game. No director has used the extra dimension to this extent since Avatar, but whereas Cameron created a whole new world and sold it as such, there is something more impressive about how Cuarón builds a facsimile of the known universe and convincingly shows it off as if it were the real thing. There is nary a frame in Gravity that betrays the magic.
Indeed, Gravity is a movie that demands to be seen on the biggest, loudest screen you can find. In IMAX. In 3D. Not just for the noisy, exciting moments, either. You also want to be able to appreciate the quiet pauses where Cuarón's elegant construction allows you to appreciate the majesty of the universe and our own small space within it. How his spacefarers move through their surroundings, sometimes a small blip on the horizon, sometimes at the center of a very deep frame, says a lot about what it means to be human. We are both eclipsed by mother nature and an active participant in its glory. It's that second aspect that keeps us alive even when larger forces--be it the natural conditions themselves or our own hubris at disrespecting the same--threaten to overtake our existence.
For a production this big, Gravity is impressively free of bloat. Tightly wound at 90 minutes, there is not a moment wasted, not a second where your thoughts are allowed to drift off to other things. Go to this one and settle in for the full ride. Turn off your phones, shush your noisy neighbors, leave the popcorn in the popper--no distraction, full immersion. It's worth it. Gravity just may be the best picture of 2013.