One of the things that first got me into film were the AFI “100 Years” specials that aired in the 90s and early 2000s.  I got around to their famous “100 Best Films” list eventually, but there were a few too many musicals and romances on that list to really pique the interest of my eleven year old self.  No, the special that really hooked me in was the “100 Years…100 Thrills” list, which focused in on “thrillers” in the broadest sense of the word.  The list had all the Hitchcock type films you’d expect on a list of thrillers, but there were other choices on the list like High Noon, Safety Last, and All the President’s Men which made sense on the list if you thought about them but which are set in enviroments and situations which aren’t normally associated with the thriller “genre.”  For instance, High Noon is set in the old west but doesn’t really play out like most westerns.  All of that film’s drama focuses on the tension of Gary Cooper’s character feels as he waits for the showdown he knows is coming at the titular hour.  Safety Last has all the antics of a farcical comedy, but when Harold Lloyd is climbing that tower you can’t help but worry that he’s about to plummet.  And while All the President’s Men is set in a newsroom and largely involves the making of phone calls and the tracking down of sources, the way the investigation comes together feels more thrilling than a straightforward drama would.

I was thinking a lot about this wider definition of “thriller” while watching the new Alfonso Cuarón Gravity, which has frequently and erroneously been called a science fiction film simply because it’s set in space when at its core it is a thriller through and through.  Cuarón’s film is not set in the future and does not depict any sort of technology that has not already been employed by NASA.  The focus is on a rookie astronaut named Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) who is helping with repairs on the Hubble telescope when mission control suddenly warns Stone and the two other astronauts on the spacewalk, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and engineer Shariff (Paul Sharma), that a debris field is about to rip through the region they’re in and lay waste to their ship.  Stone begins spinning freely into space, and seems to be doomed until Kowalski swoops in with a jet pack and saves her.  Stuck out in space, the two of them must find a way to get back to their ship and find a way to earth before their air runs out.

I suspect that many of the people who go to see Gravity after hearing all the praise for it may be a bit surprised at how simple the story is.  There’s no hidden plotline here that emerges later in the film, this is all about seeing if and how Sandra Bullock’s character is going to survive this ordeal and it proceeds procedurally until this question is answered and at that point the film ends.  Those looking for a more conventional plot which involves human interaction may be baffled or disappointed.  That’s not to say the film is empty.  It certainly has an emotional arc and there’s also enough material here for an aspiring film student to give the film a political, environmental, or a feminist reading, but at its center this is a movie about action (of a sort) and suspense.  As I see it, there’s nothing wrong with that, but if that’s where a film hangs its hat it becomes extremely execution dependent, and fortunately the execution here is absolutely brilliant.

“Visceral” is a word that gets abused by critics and applied to films that aren’t really worthy of it, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  Gravity is a film that truly deserves the moniker.  As the Sandra Bullock character’s day gets worse and worse you’re constantly on the edge of your seat hoping that she manages to escape the increasingly dangerous situations she finds herself in.  This is in part because Bullock (an actress who all too often wastes her talents on less challenging material) manages to create a lot of audience empathy without having a whole lot of backstory to work with.  Cuarón also creates a lot of suspense simply by immersing the audience into the film’s environment.  It goes without saying that the film’s CGI looks incredible and that while you watch it you really don’t think too much about the fact that most of the film was likely shot on a green screen.  The film’s science seem extremely accurate, at least to a layman’s eyes, and this also increases the tension simply because it makes outer space seem all the more hostile.

Another factor in why the film is so damn visceral: 3D.  The film is, by far, the best argument for 3D I’ve yet seen.  I’m generally not a huge believer in stereoscopy as a filmmaking tool and generally only see a movie or two per year in the format.  Even when a film like Avatar, Hugo, and Life of Pi use 3D well the technique still seems like kind of a sideshow to me and when I think back to the films my memories of them tend to be in 2D.  With Gravity though… I don’t know.  This is a film that truly seems to have been made to be watched in three dimensions and on the biggest screen possible.  I’m not going to say that it really feels like you’re up in space with Sandra Bullock, but you definitely get a much better idea of her location in relation to the various objects that are floating around her at any given moment.  I saw the film’s trailer a few times in front of 2D movies and, yeah, you want to see this in 3D.

Gravity is a hard film to review because it feels like a sophisticated production but the things that make it great aren’t overly intellectual in nature.  The film is more of an experience than a story and you have to sort of accept the fact that it’s almost more like a roller coaster ride than a film.  Of course that’s what most bad summer blockbusters claim to be doing as well, but they really aren’t.  Most of those films actually do have standard narrative plots, albeit stupid ones that periodically get interrupted by familiar action set pieces.  Those films ask you to “leave your brain at the door,” and that’s something that Gravity never tried to force you to do.  However, it does attempt to stimulate different parts of your brain than something like Upstream Color or Before Midnight will, and to some people that will somehow make it a lesser work.  I disagree.  There’s plenty of room in the world of great cinema for a film like Gravity which simply shows you an extreme experience in a way you’ve never seen it before.

**** out of Four


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