There was a time when going to the movies implied that you would experience no small amount of magic. It's a feeling that is difficult to describe and hard to quantify - but it's the kind of feeling that I got when seeing "Jaws" in the theater for the first time, or "Star Wars," or "The Empire Strikes Back," or even a more dramatic or "serious" film like "The Godfather," "Prince of the City," or "Hannah and Her Sisters." The feeling that, for two or more hours of your life, you were going to be treated to something special - something that would stay with you for much longer than the time you spent seated in the theater. I see more than my fair share of movies these days, both at the theater and at home on Netflix or on demand. But that feeling of magic has seemed to be fleeting in recent years - the last time I truly felt it was during "Inglorious Basterds" - the notion that, as a viewer, you were seeing something new, something fresh and dynamic - and doing so in the hands of a master.
Last night, we saw "Gravity," and it felt like going back to those old times. First of all, we were lucky enough to score some free tickets at the IMAX, thanks to the local newspaper. The movie began at 7:30 and we were planning to eat dinner at a restaurant right across the street, but when we got there we saw that a line had already formed (unlike normal procedure for this theater, there was no assigned seating), so we spent more than an hour in line, which was a real throwback to the old days. And even though the movie has been out for a couple of weeks, few people in the theater had seen it (the hosts asked that question beforehand), so it had a bit of that "opening night" feeling.
And then, of course, there was the movie itself.
"Gravity" was, suffice to say, spectacular. It's hard to put it into words that don't end up sounding like one of those reviews where the "critic" is more in the business of having his/her quotes included on a movie poster than actually providing cogent analysis/criticism of the movie in question. But through its 91 minutes, it is fair to say that there is never a moment when the viewer is not on the absolute edge of their seat, coupled with a feeling that you're out there in space with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (just like you might have felt you were in the water with the young actor who played Brody's son in "Jaws" when the shark swam into the pond).
It's hard to talk about the story without providing spoilers, so let's just say that a team of astronauts is on a space shuttle mission involving the Hubble Telescope, something goes horribly wrong with another nation's attempt to bring down one of their satellites, which leads to a chain reaction that sends what amounts to hellfire careening towards the unsuspecting astronauts. It's then a survival story with Bullock front and center - and like the unseen truck driver was the seemingly unstoppable nemesis for Dennis Weaver in "Duel," the space debris becomes the nemesis for Bullock's character, Dr. Ryan Stone (or, as others have commented, think Sigourney Weaver vs. the alien in the original "Alien"). Through a combination of guile, heart and sometimes sheer luck, Dr. Stone survives one obstacle after another in her effort to stay alive and get back home.
Visually...well, I don't know that any film, ever, has topped it. James Cameron himself has said that this was the space film he has been waiting for all his life. And notwithstanding the likely scientific errors that some have pointed out, this is the first time that I've ever seen a movie where I felt I was feeling what it must be like for those few humans that have had the opportunity and the privilege to venture out beyond our atmosphere. If the film is even in the ballpark in its depiction of what it is like to be walking in space, then my admiration for what astronauts do is all the greater.
This, folks, is movie magic. "Gravity" is what going to the movies is supposed to be about. And when you go, you owe it to yourself to see it at the IMAX, in 3-D.