It should be easy to decide if a movie should get a full five-star rating. After all, a "perfect film" (as my ranking scheme indicates as worthy of five-star reward) should be easy to spot for its flawlessness. For all of its exceptional qualities and beyond-worthy feats, especially in the technical realm, Gravity is not a perfect film – despite how close it comes. But I struggled a great deal with the ranking of this film anyway, asking myself why it wasn't worth five stars. That's because a masterpiece is, above all else, well-balanced. A perfect harmony of its vision, its communication of compelling ideas, the technical craft of its composition, and the artistic expression with which it engages its audience. In this light, Gravity is unequivocally a masterpiece. But its balance is skewed - the technical craft of the film and Cuarón's vision are so far beyond anything I've seen before that any minor foibles in the acting or story departments are so vastly dwarfed that they almost become moot. And this is the root of my struggle.
I watched this film in IMAX 3D, which is in my opinion the only tolerable or enjoyable presentation of 3D. Cuarón's film is impossible not to find yourself immersed in, and augmented by 3D - used with surgical precision and never in the way of the film - Gravity's entirely fluid camera movements do not allow for a passive audience experience. Traversing both inner and outer space effortlessly, from the small confines of a cramped spacesuit to the vast expanses of black nothingness, Lubezki's photography defies the limits of not only what can be captured, but also how it must be orchestrated. Cuarón and Lubezki's choices throughout these long, sweeping scenes are never simple. They are carefully choreographed orchestrations that wax and wane in energy like roller coaster rides.
And it's unbelievable what's actually delivered in its short 91 minute run-time. Sure, there's the breathtaking destruction sequences and the harrowing depictions of their consequences. But there's poetic beauty too. Cuarón is capable of pulling very simple, direct imagery from a cacophony of visuals, and it's in the quieter moments before we're pulled back down the rabbit hole that he masterfully demonstrates his gift of connecting on both symbolic and emotional levels. This is as much a film about integrally human notions - hope, despair, surrender and courage - as much as it is technical ones that spiral into disaster. It's about what it means to be human in a universe governed by sheer chaotic randomness, the most basic inevitability, and everything in between - and the reasons we find to not let go in spite of it all.
Clooney and Bullock each give great performances, and although it's difficult to engage with Clooney's character and his veteran detachment throughout the film, the balance between the two leads more than compensates. This is Bullock at the top of her game, and it's fascinating to see this level of acting from the same woman starring in All About Steve. There are a few moments where the performances falter, but at the pace the movie careens along, there's little time to dwell on them.
Steven Price's incredible score lives up to the task of being the driving force in an environment without sound. The evolving layers used to take us through these long complex scenes demonstrate that sound effects alone will never have the same impact of a climactic crescendo. In IMAX, the score is as much felt as heard, and Price's climactic build-ups amplify the tension and pressure in the film to the breaking point. But it also demonstrates restraint and solemnity in the reprieves, lending a sublime beauty capable of relieving the tension with the same deftness with which it is built.
Overall, it's hands down the best movie I've seen this year. And it's not perfect. But as you can tell by this review, it's far too easy to laude the exceptional qualities on display here than it is to call out the minor annoyances. And that's what makes a film like Gravity an imperfect masterpiece.