The sparkling blue and white of the earth stands in stark contrast to the vast, black abyss of space. The planet slowly rotates for a while, tranquil and silent. The soft, faraway sounds of radio feedback filter in–voices? A miniscule, white figure enters the screen inconspicuously, gliding along far, far away. The voices grow louder. The figure in the distance enlarges ever so slightly–it’s an astronaut. More specifically, it’s Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), and he’s talking to mission control in Houston, as well as his fellow astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Kowalski’s jovial, wise-cracking attitude is odd–he appears genuinely at home in space.
The opening of Gravity is one of the few moments of serenity that wunderkind director Alfonso Cuaron allows before all hell breaks loose. It’s a gorgeous sequence that betrays the overwhelming dread that’s to follow, and thanks to a few computer tricks, appears as a single continuous shot (by my estimation, it lasts 15-20 minutes).
Soon, a hail of debris from an exploded Russian satellite will separate Kowalski and Stone from their spacecraft and consequently, their contact with earth and supplies of food, water, and oxygen. Tethered only to each other and using Kowalski’s suit’s thruster pack, the two must navigate to the International Space Station before their oxygen runs out or they encounter more debris.
If this sounds like a fairly typical disaster narrative, that’s because it is. Did I mention that this is the veteran Kowalski’s last mission and Stone’s first–and that she has a deceased daughter back on Earth? The secret of Gravity is that for all its technical innovation and wonder, it’s fairly formulaic. Just when you think the worst is over and a return to Earth is imminent, guess what? Another obstacle is thrown in our heroes’ path.
It’s a testament to Cuaron’s virtuosity and the acting of Bullock and Clooney that despite its clichés, Gravity holds the audience in fearful rapture for the duration of its 90-minute run time. Clooney is gruff and charming as usual, and Bullock embeds Ryan Stone with her trademark down-home ordinariness, making the character all the more compelling.
Yet this is the rare film where the director is the true star. Cuaron’s camera floats around like a miniature roving satellite, gliding around and upside down through the shuttle, into the astronauts’ helmets, and around all corners of the atmosphere. He creates a separate universe inside our own, one full of wonder, calm, terror, and most of all, silence. One comes to the realization that this is how all space movies should look, feel, and sound–no big explosions or high-speed projectiles, but the clumsiness of weightless objects colliding, the occasionally plodding pace of movement, the striking lack of sound of it all. Gravity begs to be seen in 3D on the biggest screen possible to fully experience its wonders.
Cuaron cited 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of the main inspirations behind this film, so it’s surprising that Gravity largely avoids the abstract questions of humanity and man’s place in the universe. The long, gorgeous shots of space and the earth allow enough time for contemplation of the matter, but Gravity has more pressing issues–what do you do when there’s a fire in your escape pod? How do you travel from one place to another in just an astronaut suit? How do you operate a spacecraft completely labeled in Russian? These questions and their life-or-death severity might have you choking for air, just as you would in an atmosphere with no oxygen.
With Gravity, Cuaron has once again proven that he’s one of the most multi-talented and brilliant directors working today. Half the joy of the film is contemplating the mind-bending process of how it was made – what kind of incredible technology could be responsible for images this spectacular, how it was manipulated into recreating a version of space that one imagines is very close to the real thing. Movies like Gravity–smart, original, beautiful, innovative, and well-acted–have been all too rare recently and should be savored. This one is destined to go down as one of our best sci-fi films, as well as one of the best films of the year.