Alfonso Cuaron has accomplished something that I had started to believe was becoming an impossibility in this age of Hollywood decline. And that is making an intelligent, visceral, and fun popcorn movie that re-establishes a reason to go to the movie theater in the first place. Here is a film that makes a case to get out of your house, go to a darkened movie theater packed with other people, and be dwarfed, engulfed, and nearly absorbed by a film. When I say absorbed, I sort of mean that. This is a survival film set in space, but one in which the act of watching it places the viewer into the film, into space with the astronauts where one literally feels the weightlessness of space and of the exertion that must be made to get from here to there, with little control of one's spatial surroundings. There were moments in the film where sitting in the theatre, I literally felt short of breath. I do believe it was the most tense I’ve ever felt in a theater, as the peril the astronauts are under plays out in basically real time over the course of about ninety minutes. Most of this credit can be given to Cuaron and his excellent design and photography team who made use of camera technology, CGI, animation, and some solid work from George Clooney and especially Sandra Bullock.
Matt (Clooney) and Ryan (Bullock) are two astronauts who are working outside their Explorer shuttle making repairs when they learn of a satellite that has been blown up. They are told to make it back inside the ship, but the shrapnel and debris from the wreckage passes through their orbit, damaging the ship, taking lives of others on the mission, and sending Matt and Ryan free floating off into space. We watch as Matt and Ryan work together to stay alive, and then eventually, the film hones in on Ryan as she attempts one of the great survival tales in the history of cinema, turning the film into a nearly one-woman show in the second half as Bullock commands the screen with a balance of humanism, grace, and athleticism as the script subjects her to one peril after another, without much of a let-up. Ryan has a backstory whereby she had a daughter who had died at age 4, leaving her struggling to find ways of coping. This comes into play as she reaches a point of no return where she is ready to give up on life, but thoughts of her late daughter spur her to not give up.
This is the rare film that allows a woman to be a strong heroine, not forcing her into a pigeonholed existence where she has to be macho, sexualized, or violent to get there. Bullock gives an athletic and physically intense performance. We often hear her heavy breathing in her space suit as the soundtrack is overwhelmed by her shortness of breath during her moments of fear. It’s almost enough to make one start breathing heavy as well just listening to it. Bullock has often taken roles that don't require a lot of range from her, but here she shows what she's truly capable of: Fear, despair, strength, compassion, sadness and utter believability throughout. Moments where she’s floating, crashing into space stations, closing hatches, reaching desperately for anything to grab onto….all of this spatial acting is accomplished with a real sense for physicality and the enormous strain that her body and mind is under. Often, the first person point of view comes into play, as the camera switches to Ryan as if we are her. These moments engulf us, as if we ourselves are floating and reeling through space with her, trying to reach for anything we can grab onto as we pass by the space station. It’s unbelievably tense filmmaking and cinematography using new technology to create nearly-invisible transition shots that flex the point of view and allow for such fluid movements. Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki don’t just film scenes statically. They film them in such a way that it gives the viewer a feeling a flotation and zero gravity. When the blackness of space opens into the blackness of the movie theatre, all of this becomes the large and immersive experience it was designed to be, with the size and scope of the visuals overwhelming the viewer, transporting them to a world the likes of which we’ve never experienced this way.
Though some have recalled Kubrick’s 2001 when mentioning this work, I tend to only reflect upon the usage of special effects wizardry when comparing them. Surely, the depth of plot and size of ambition is different in each case, with Kubrick's film more cerebral and Cuaron's humanistic. What becomes of comparison is the way that the films put you in these places and make you feel part of the mission by using advancements in technology, not to overcompensate for other lacking elements, but to ground the audience in a reality, immersing one in the environment. Thus helping shape and define the experience so it is believable, tangible and relatable. As the film occurs in real time, we feel the weight of accumulated peril, as nothing comes easy for Ryan with sequence upon sequence building the tension and the desperation. We gradually sympathize and identify with her in increasing measures throughout the film, building to the moment she has a breakdown and is in tears when she realizes she is facing her hour of death. These incredibly personal moments leave a real impression. I’m not sure if watching the film at home will bring the same level of excitement, but I’m certainly glad my first viewing was in the theater. Cuaron, who has a penchant for long takes (making a legendary one in 2006’s Children of Men), ups the ante with a 13-minute take here, building suspense at the beginning of the film, enhancing the real-time feel. All of the design elements, like the soundtrack, sound design, and effects design all enhance the aural and visual focus. Yet Cuaron knows that what elevates works like this isn't technology.....it is the human element, and through Bullock’s assured portrayal, she keeps it from becoming all about the effects, shrinking down the narrative to a mother who has lost her daughter and might lose her own life now, but will fight and claw and not give up. This is the most excitement I've had watching a movie in the last 5 years.