Gravity may not be a masterpiece, but I had such a terrific time watching it that I'm ranking it near the top of my 2013 list. In a manner reminiscent of Ang Lee in the previous year's Life of Pi, director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men) avails himself of cutting-edge movie technology to create a film that is decidedly not a penetrating exploration of spirituality and humanity and instead is more akin to the greatest EPCOT Center attraction of all time. The movie really does feel like something cooked up for a theme park (but I mean that in a good way). While the opening few minutes are as impressively immersive as any Universal City attraction, many silly and irrelevant contrivances ensue, including the astronauts' contrived "everyman" banter, a predictably expendable minority crew-member, and a preposterous disaster that incites the film's action. And while EPCOT movies are never more than half an hour long, I'm sure that if one lasted for ninety minutes, the Disney park would pile on the simplistic, pseudo-religious themes and death/rebirth imagery as heavy-handedly as Gravity does.
But if you can get past your disappointment about the immensely talented Cuarón's missed opportunity to make something as timeless and intellectually stimulating as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, or even Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, it's hard not to be won over by the picture’s ambition and achievement. Most of all, Cuarón deserves fervent applause for his use of the IMAX and 3D formats. This film was expressly made to be watched in the biggest, loudest IMAX theater you can find, and it would be a sin of cinema to see it any other way. This is the first picture to really live up to the promise of NASA's 1985 documentary The Dream is Alive, which was the first film I ever saw in the IMAX format and which made me think, "Someday they're gonna make narrative features like this!" As far as 3D is concerned, Cuarón works in the medium as deftly as Wim Wenders in Pina and Alfred Hitchcock in Dial M For Murder. Like those two directors and the aforementioned Lee, Cuarón understands that composing and editing for 3D technology is entirely different from working with conventional cinema, necessitating long, unbroken takes with extremely fluid camera motion. Space provides the ideal environment in which to operate under these constraints because of the lack of gravity that makes movements smooth and consistent, and the vast distances involved--3D movies show layers of images rather than create the true depth perception of natural sight so extreme focal planes show it off best. Movies set in space also provide tremendous opportunities for sound design, from the deafening silence of a vacuum to the chaos of engines, explosions and other man-made auditory sources.Sandra Bullock gives her usual appealing and workmanlike performance (if that sounds like a dig, it's not meant to be), and George Clooney's hammy charm reaches new levels of cheesiness (that one is a bit of a dig). It's impossible to take their characters' dialogue seriously; they talk like two strangers who have just met in a bar, rather than two aerospace professionals who have spent months preparing for and executing a mission. Still, both actors do manage to convey the sense that they really are up in space, experiencing the effects of weightlessness and, once they're separated from their ship, the terror of facing an infinite void. It is in these sequences that Gravity feels every bit as exciting as a roller-coaster. If Cuarón had co-written this film with one of the many excellent sci-fi writers working today (as Kubrick did with Arthur C. Clarke), rather than with his son, he might have given us one of the greatest space films of all time, instead of just (just!) the best 3D IMAX movie yet.