Gravity is the kind of movie that reminds us why multiplexes take up so much space. My cushy seat inside the truly massive Cinemark 20 in Redwood City (widely regarded as the Bay Area’s least historic movie theater) sat halfway up the enormous screen: not a bad spot to watch Sandra Bullock spin for an hour and a half. Life-size and in 3-D, Gravity felt for all the world like a space-themed theme park ride, minus the long lines and lingering smells of funnel cake.
For all its vast limitlessness, outer space manages to come off as rather predictable in Gravity. Sandra Bullock, as the nervous but skillful Dr. Ryan Stone, plods her way out of orbit, and we are merely tethered behind her for the ride. This is not to say that you’ll get bored: Gravity assaults your senses so relentlessly that its muddy sentimentalism, in the end, doesn’t dint its much-hyped luster. This is a physical movie, not an emotional or an intellectual one. So if you intend to see it, put on the ridiculous glasses and watch it in 3-D, in a theater. On a laptop or (God forbid) an iPhone, the film will lose its force.
Gravity’s portrayal of bodies (and spaceships, and tears) floating through space is at once nauseating and erotic, fully immersing the viewer in Bullock’s struggle for survival. When you aren’t clutching your gut wishing that homegirl would stop spinning or rolling your eyes at each hackneyed reminder of her (scant) reasons to live, you will be dazed by the film’s understated and tortuous exploration of movement.
And, if you’re like me, you’ll also spend plenty of time geeking out over the film’s unique look. Gravity relies heavily on digital effects, of course—planet Earth, visible in the background more often than not, has never looked better—but it pairs CGI with remarkably careful, even tender, lighting work that smoothly blends the more ostentatious digital effects into a warm, naturalistic palette.
Gravity’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is as close as you can get to being a “star” cinematographer, known for his five Oscar nominations and for his contributions to Terrence Malick’s ramblingly dreamy filmography. Gravity is a far cry, visually speaking, from much of Malick’s work, but we see the same quality of light on Bullock as we saw on Jessica Chastain in Tree of Life, for example, and against the sterility of space, the human touch evident in this soft, warm light is staggering. Space is even lonelier when its few occupants feel so beloved, so fragile, in the glow of sunlight without atmospheric interference.
The entirety of Gravity uses 3-D to its fullest extent, including contemplative long takes and indulgently well-composed geometric shots alongside the more typical 3-D “comin’ atcha” shots. Watch out for the narrow recesses of the abandoned space shuttle and the extreme isolation of Bullock floating above Earth at sunrise. On the more close-up level of things, I can’t get Bullock’s floating 3-D tears out of my mind: this is what 3-D was meant to do. Floating tears may soon become the stuff of cliché, but for now, they serve as a reminder that 3-D can showcase emotions other than fear.
The floating tears are only one example of what I found to be the real interest underneath the film’s thin plot: what happens in space? Calculating time zones, moving around, or extinguishing a fire become laborious, if not impossible, tasks, and the fun of watching Bullock tackle such challenges in 3-D makes up for the plot’s shallow emotional range. Underneath its sentimentalism, the film offers you the chance to witness the ways in which death, time, and Sandra Bullock differ—or don’t—in space, and the film’s journey home is a trip, good or bad, that you will want to take, in all three dimensions.