Every once in a while, we are allowed the laughter of the gods. It is a pure laughter, sprung from joy rather than bitterness or irony. It is not schadenfreude. It has no victim. Rather, such laughter revels in creation the way a child revels in play — with pure mind and a freedom beyond the shackles of doubt. It is a thankful laughter, a barometer registering sheer gratitude.
Such is the laughter I experienced during the long opening scene of Gravity, the new movie by Mexican-born writer/director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También). That scene, in which a magnificent planet Earth looms cosmically into view, is rendered with such convincing magnitude and glory by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his special effect team that I lost all powers of disbelief and simply started giggling. It is, quite literally, a breathtaking moment. Wow. Thanks for that, Mr. Cuarón. I lost myself for a while, and I liked it.
The rest of the movie ain’t bad, either. Gravity is a simple story rendered in epic scales, like The Iliad or The Old Man and the Sea. Obviously, simple does not mean pointless — unless you find the struggle of life and death in the cold universe a pointless affair. I’ll admit, sometimes I do. But sitting through Gravity — in which two American astronauts (the exquisite pairing of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) fight to survive a massive storm of satellite debris orbiting the earth at the speed of a bullet — I was riveted. I believed.
And, more than a few times during Gravity’s 91 excruciatingly suspenseful minutes, I yelped and flinched, making a move to dive behind my seat. I was about to be hit by satellite shrapnel! This sort of foolishness doesn’t happen to me all that often; suspension of disbelief as a moviegoer is not one of my strengths, or weaknesses, if you will. And I am no huge fan of bow-bow special effects — they strike me too often as a crutch for gimpy narratives and shoddy artistry — but if ever there was an argument for the latest innovations in digital CGI technology, Gravity is it. It is a revolutionary moment in the history of cinema.
This film is a space thriller, plain and simple. Beyond the sheer magnitude of its visual splendor, it is a rip-snorting adventure film. It also stars Clooney and Bullock, two smooth veterans working at the height of their significant acting talents. But is the story scientifically feasible, and are there holes in the plot? Can you accuse it of being sentimental and triumphalist? Who knows? Who cares? Hindsight happens when you catch your breath.
For now, trust me: Fork over the money for a seat in the local IMAX 3D theater, buckle down your expectations and let yourself be shot high as a kite into space. It’s why we go to the movies.
GRAVITY: Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón. Cinematography, Ben Richardson. Editing, Joe Swanberg. Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and Ed Harris. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013. PG-13. 91 minutes. Five stars.