There's a lot to be worried about right now. Freak storms, E. Coli in the food, the Fukushima-poisoned Pacific Ocean, the entire electorate of the United States waged in an ideological tug of war that has literally shut down the government and, with it, stuff like airline safety inspections and nutrition programs for babies, people taking heavy artillery into public places and just shooting everyone. There's more, of course, that's just all I could come up with off the top of my head. And if you worry yourself into an illness without health insurance then you'll just die. Oh, wait, there are also those enormous Chinese death-hornets now. They're coming for you. So that's great.
And what's needed in times like these, movie-wise, at least, isn't necessarily the kind of big, bland Hollywood film designed to numb and obliterate two hours of memory and anxiety. Solid catharsis is required, a work of entertainment that's also a work of art that's also capable of grabbing the anxiety of its cultural moment and wringing it out. This strain of mass appeal film comes along infrequently. And when it does arrive, when everything works out right for the big Hollywood movie, when all the parts are functioning together at far above the baseline of competency, it momentarily reminds you that almost everything else that industry sends down the product chute is either mediocre or completely worthless. But this feeling only lasts a moment when the very good thing on screen is demanding every part of you. All you have is the fully consuming thrill of experience. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is that fully thrilling experience for 90 relentlessly frightening, unexpectedly moving minutes. It'll leave you shaking.
All the plot you need to know: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts repairing their ship when debris from a destroyed satellite knocks their vessel out of commission and, subsequently, the two of them into a gravity-free drift, stranded in nothing, their oxygen running low. It's everything you saw in that jaw-dropping, panic-stricken first trailer and it's the beginning of a survival story where silence is as frightening as extreme noise, where keeping calm and carrying on is for other people with ground underneath them and a reliable air supply and where the tone never softens into anything resembling hope. It's Xanax Cinema at its most freaked out.
It's a hardware space procedural, every heart-stopping beat giving way to a new life-threatening dilemma, each unexpected wrench in the plan shoving the characters, especially Bullock, into even more impossible corners. And as constructed by Cuaron and his team of digital experts, it's as absorbing and beautiful and horrifying as a film can be. The effects are impeccable, the 3D is like nothing that's come before, the performances harness all the intimacy to be found in vast space and the visceral punch-punch-punch of it all will pin you to your seat.
So if it lacks the rigorous stillness of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the dreamlike vision of Tarkovsky's Solaris, it's no less powerful or serious or memorable. It's solid and beautiful on its own meat-and-potatoes terms, the kind of science fiction that honors the genre and remembers its humanity, a movie-movie with its heart on its sleeve, a film that deserves all the praise that's going to keep coming its way, a classic happening right in front of you.