This year, the Academy Awards for best picture will be a duel between two films: 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. These films really contrast each other. 12 Years a Slave is a real life story of a man versus a system. Gravity is a fictional tale of an astronaut versus her environment. 12 Years a Slave is brutal and insightful. Gravity is beautiful and suspenseful. 12 Years a Slave is praised for its story. Gravity is praised for its visuals. What they both have in common is they are tales of survival.
Gravity takes place in outer space, where medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is helping experienced astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) fix a Hubble telescope. They are warned that shrapnel from a destroyed satellite is heading their way. Before they can even get to the ship, the shrapnel flies by. It destroys the spaceship and nearly kills everyone on board. In the chaos, Ryan is left spinning in outer space, unable to control her movements in the eternal darkness and running out of oxygen.
That’s the film in a nutshell. This film has the simplest story of all those nominated. At its core, it is a disaster movie and a survival picture. Arguably, it is simpler than most movies. There are almost no back stories for anyone including the main characters. Ryan mentions the death of a child, but beyond this, not much else. There are almost no scenes that take place on Earth. The film puts you right into outer space and less than five minutes into the film, disaster strikes. We see the aftermath in real time. In fact, Bullock spends nearly the entire movie alone. In its 90 minute run, Gravity will be the shortest film to win Best Picture since Annie Hall (if it does win).
What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in visuals. The cinematography of outer space is gorgeous with the infinite space and the lovely earth filling most of the scene. The visual effects look mind blowing in its realism. It captures perfectly how difficult it is for astronauts to control their movement in outer space. The scenes of Kowalski and Stone bumping into space shuttles and trying to grab for anything looks so real it puts you on the edge of your seat, hoping they can grasp that handle. They also remind us that there’s no sound in space, which makes it scarier when the shrapnel comes crashing. In fact, the scenes of the floating dead bodies in midair and Bullock spinning around into oblivion are frightening.
There are a few things might turn people off. Despite being short, it takes a more meditative approach that some people will find too slow. There is also some painfully obvious symbolism. And the dialogue…well, let’s say there is a reason it is the only Best Picture nominee not nominated for its screenplay.
For all its flaws, Director Alfonso Cuaron lets the visuals tell the story, building up suspense, waiting for the shrapnel to return and praying for Bullock’s survival. The visuals are the true stars of the film, haunting audience members with its beautiful images of earth, sun and stars. After watching this movie, people will never want to ever go into space.