Ever wondered just how wrong things can go in outer space? Gravity has an answer, and we all owe NASA a huge debt of thanks for limiting it to the realm of fiction for so long. It’s too horrific to ignore and too stark not to carry the sense that this could really happen.
Director Alfonso Cuaron doesn’t even have a real story here, just a concept to which he can attach an exercise in technique. An incredible, flawless, irresistible, white-knuckle, pound-your-head-against-the-wall-like-a-gorilla-smashing- coconuts exercise in technique. In the opening shot (which lasts a good 20 minutes), we learn everything we need to know about the characters, the situation and the goal. The rest of the film just points us at the buzzsaw and hits “go.” A seemingly ordinary space shuttle mission to add new software to the Hubble telescope gets exceptionally hairy in a great big hurry, leaving two survivors to figure out what happens next. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is the canny veteran with a chipper optimism that lets him see the circumstances clearly. His colleague Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a one-time specialist, prone to motion sickness and about as nervous as the rest of us would be in a total vacuum with no apparent way home.
Like all great suspense films, Gravity finds an impressive number of variations on the same basic theme. Cuaron emphasizes our vulnerability in this deceptively calm environment: how one little twitch or circuitry misfire can send us screaming into an endless black chasm. His camera constantly reminds us how tiny we are in the face of the cosmos, and how the vaunted intelligence that got us up there can only do so much against the indifferent forces surrounding us.
There’s a spiritual side to the tension, and some big questions are asked in surprisingly understated ways. Bullock, whose performance here I wouldn’t have thought possible before seeing it, serves as an incredible anchor. She has to hold almost every frame, and a sunny disposition can only take you so far when there’s nowhere to hide. Clooney coasts on his bottomless charm, but it’s pretty much The Sandy Show from beginning to end; the girl is more than up for the task.
Such subtleties, however, matter less than the incredible ways Cuaron finds to yank our pounding hearts out of our chests. The barest whiff of contrivance lurks around the various hoops Kowalski and Stone have to jump through, but the film varies each one so carefully that you never notice. The real brilliance comes from pure camera movements. They take the breath away: not just the steady shots that helped Cuaron earn his reputation, but from more “mundane” shots that move and pivot within the action itself. They disorient us, but not in an unpleasant way. There was no motion sickness or dizziness at our screening, which was in IMAX 3D. (And that really is the only way to properly watch this film.) Just a sense of what this environment would be like, augmented by the absolute silence with which the threats come barreling at them
There’s a lot of comparisons being made to 2001, and they’re actually fairly apt. Gravity lacks the head-trip profundity of Kubrick’s masterpiece, but it clearly draws inspiration from the mixture of wonderment and fear at the grandeur of outer space. Sure, it’s basically a lot of stimulus response with only the quietest shades of something more to keep it from complete sterility. Then again, Kubrick was always a bit sterile himself, and Gravity knows just how to expand upon his revered bag of tricks. It’s been a terrific year for science fiction movies. This one stands with the very best of them: borne from a keen understanding of cinema’s possibilities and the creativity to put it to good use. Somewhere, Kubrick is smiling… as are Hitchcock, Welles and all those other masters whose ranks Cuaron is well on his way to joining.