Gravity is the kind of movie that only comes along once in a blue moon: a heart-stopping work of art, that conveys the terror and beauty of space. You've already heard a lot about why this movie rules — but you still don't know all the reasons why Gravity is a must-see movie. Minor spoilers ahead...
Actually, I'm going to avoid giving any real spoilers for Gravity, beyond generalizations that you could have gleaned from the trailer. You really ought to see this movie without knowing all of its secrets. In a nutshell, though, Gravity is a film in which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are a scientist and an astronaut, stranded in space after a disaster, and they have to try and survive.
It might be the best action movie of the year
We've seen a lot of action movies this year, in which CG spectacle merges with cut-scene-style flailing. There have been a lot of "action sequences" that didn't help tell the story or raise the excitement level at all. So it's refreshing to see a movie like Gravity, which is basically non-stop action — of the "surviving a disaster" sort rather than the "booyah punching bad guys" sort, but still.
Much like Speed, the film that made Bullock famous, this is a movie where the characters can't stop moving for a moment. Director Alfonso Cuarón sets up a situation where if you stop moving, you're dead, and films the whole thing in a kinetic, intense manner that makes the nonstop action even more exciting.
Every bit of action in Gravity illuminates the characters, especially Bullock's Ryan Stone, and reveals something about them. And meanwhile, every bit of action is crucial to the storytelling, and death is never more than a moment away because Cuarón really makes you feel the deadliness of space.
This is the most exciting movie I've seen in a year or two — and not in an "intellectually stimulating" way, but more in an "I just peed myself" way. Which brings us to...
It is full of surprises and shocks
You probably think you already know what happens in Gravity. You don't. I went into this film having seen a big chunk of footage at Comic-Con and having read a decent amount about the film, and it still kept startling me in the best way.
If you've seen Children of Men, you probably already know that Cuarón is a master of suspense — but in Gravity, he has a much harder task because he can't pull off a random plot twist without breaking your belief in the reality of this situation. Bullock and Clooney are trapped hundreds of miles from any other living thing, so all the surprises have to come from them and their situation.
And yet, Cuarón manages to keep you guessing and throw you off guard, again and again, without cheating at all. I kept gasping and gripping the edge of my seat while watching this film, and I could hear everybody in my row having the exact same shared heart attack. And that's due, in large part, to the fact that...
This is what we were promised for 3D film-making
When James Cameron was pimping Avatar, we heard a lot of promises about how 3D movies were going to be more immersive and intense than regular films. That extra dimension was going to pull us in, and we were going to feel like we were living on Pandora or whatever. And the best thing you can say about 3D movie-making since then is, it hasn't always given you a headache. (IMAX has delivered in a way 3D hasn't, but that's a topic for another day.)
But sweet flying Jesus, Gravity uses 3D in exactly the way that Cameron promised it would work. You feel how far away Earth is and how difficult it is to get from one place to another. More than that, Cuarón uses 3D as a storytelling tool — you can see for yourself how little control the characters have over objects floating in space. If Sandra Bullock lets go of her tools for a second and they float away from her, you feel in your gut that she will never get them back.
Gravity works a billion times better in 3D, because it relies so much on spatial relationships and Cuarón uses the technique as a key piece of his toolkit.
It's an Oscar-bait film about problem-solving
Sandra Bullock is amazing in this film, taking you on an intense personal journey in which her character has a clear arc and a sense of reality that keeps this movie grounded in spite of its spacebound setting. This is the sort of character-focused, actorly film that deserves to get major awards buzz — you will get choked up watching this film — and yet, all of that character development is focused on problem-solving and figuring stuff out.
Bullock's character is a scientist, who is inexperienced in space but has to learn how to survive by her wits, and her personal growth in the film is tied together with her ability to solve puzzles. In other words, this is a film that celebrates using your brain, and which does something that a lot of storytellers struggle with: tying the plot-based problem-solving together with character growth. And Gravity aces it.
It celebrates NASA at a crucial time
The timing for Gravity coming to theaters could not be more perfect — this is a film where astronauts are being heroic and NASA is celebrated, released just a few days after NASA funding was shut down. You can't come away with Gravity without having an appreciation for the wonder and excitement of space exploration — and then, to realize that we've pulled the plug on it entirely is doubly heart-breaking.
Gravity would have been an important film at any time, but it's especially vital now that we've already been slashing NASA's funding — and now we've turned off the lights at NASA altogether.
It's an important piece of science fiction
There's been some debate over whether Gravity really "counts" as science fiction, given that there are no aliens or warp engines in the film. But the accident that creates a deadly situation for Bullock and Clooney is pretty speculative, plus this is science fiction in the broader sense of "fiction about science."
And this movie really expands the boundaries of what you can expect from a science fiction movie in 2013 — it really conveys the vastness and harshness of space, and it's probably the best vision of microgravity since 2001: a Space Odyssey. The contrast between the intimate story and the massive setting is beautiful and stirring.
Bottom line: Gravity proves that science fiction is the literature of our time, by telling a frontier survival story in space, where the personal and the scientific collide meaningfully. Gravity is what we all dream about when we imagine great science fiction in the 21st century.