Pillbox

Gravity keeps audiences in suspense

If you’re seriously considering a career as an astronaut, you shouldn’t see Gravity. If you’re looking for an intense psychological thriller with dazzling special effects, you absolutely should.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is only 91 minutes long, but it seems longer. Once the action picks up — about five minutes into the movie — it grips you and doesn’t let go until the very end, alternating between long stretches of terror and rare moments of relief. You’ll be breathing almost as hard as mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), forgetting you’re safely grounded on Earth, rather than out in space and losing oxygen with every gasp.

The film follows two American astronauts forced to improvise for their survival when their spacecraft is hit by flying debris, sending them tumbling into space. Their luck is both devastatingly bad and absurdly good at different times, and at certain moments, these astronauts are literally holding on by the tips of their fingers.

The characters are pigeonholed into their stereotypes very early on: Stone is the inexperienced genius doctor on her first space mission, while Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a chatterbox veteran astronaut who keeps his cool under pressure.

In fact, with everything else going on, it’s easy to overlook that the characters are remarkably flat and rely largely on established schemata. Bullock’s character hints at a tragic past, but even that story is barely fleshed out. The lack of complexity is likely a strategic choice — a shortcut to get to the action faster, rather than wading through slower scenes to establish story. Whatever the reason, this lack of character development inevitably makes the protagonists less compelling — perhaps a necessary sacrifice for the pace of the film.

Character development aside, Gravity is most impressive as a visual experience. For this reason, it should almost exclusively be seen in theaters. Above anything else, the movie is characterized by its stunningly sharp photography. During a few of the slower-paced scenes, we have time to zoom out and gaze at dazzling views of the Earth’s surface through its swirling atmosphere. The film does a brilliant job of planting the viewer in outer space; it’s easy to understand how beautiful and expansive, yet also terrifying and unforgiving, the universe must seem to these astronauts.

These views are accompanied by a minimal music score — a pulsing bass that increases in tempo as tension rises. The score suits the film’s clean aesthetic and simple, driving plot, but even more notable than the film’s use of music is its use of silence. At points, the pulse drops out, leaving both viewers and characters in nail-biting silence, reminding us how very alone the astronauts are in their struggle to survive.

Gravity is an immersive experience on all levels, visually and psychologically. You’ll leave the theater awed, in both good and bad ways. The film reminds us that the universe is a beautiful and wondrous place, but as Stone eloquently puts it during one of the film’s rare comedic moments, “I hate space.”