If Alfonso Cuaron’s hypnotic, exhilarating space thriller “Gravity” isn’t thematically as potent as “Children Of Men,” his allegory about an infertile world, it is nonetheless a mesmerizing experience from start to finish, an extraordinary visual triumph. The film deploys 3-D in prodigious fashion, turns the carnage of disintegrating space shuttles and hurtling satellite debris into a beautiful if perilous ballet (scored magnificently by Steven Price), and benefits in differing ways from the turns of its two star performers, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
“Gravity”‘s superlative craft, ambition and intelligence have propelled the picture into awards-season discussion, with Bullock furnishing a film that was crafted predominantly on hard drives the human touch it needs to reach earthbound audiences.
Self-contained and disembodied from the outset, “Gravity” exerts an instant narrative pull: a space shuttle, 375 miles above earth, floats into view with three astronauts performing various tasks against the backdrop of black space and the blue planet below. Mission commander is Matt Kowalsky (Clooney), a wisecracking veteran whose primary job seems to be bantering with mission control (“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission”), marveling at the view and spinning around the shuttle with his jetpack.
Queasy first-timer Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), meanwhile, is hard at work applying an undefined technology she’s invented onto the Hubble Telescope. Stone can barely keep her lunch down and, we later discover, is mired in a depressive state having lost a four-year-old daughter. We never see the face of a third astronaut, although we do see what’s left of it after this relative idyll is shattered when a missile sets off a domino effect of colliding satellites, creating a field of metallic debris traveling at 50,000 miles per hour and turning their orbit into a lethal shredding zone every 90 minutes.
Without revealing too much, the script by Cuaron and his son Jonas intersperses the hopelessness of their situation, lost in the black silence with seemingly no hope of getting home, with the desperate human compulsion to cling on to life. Ultimately, the film is about the rebirth of Bullock’s character; at one point, Cuaron and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki even frame her like a fetus in the womb as she sheds her outer skin (spacesuit) and allows herself a moment’s respite, floating in zero gravity in a temporary space-station refuge.
With Cuaron and Lubezki applying a carefully calibrated patina of gorgeousness to “Gravity,” Bullock’s smooth, unlined face, pixie haircut and pilates-toned body are the perfect physical accompaniment to the storytelling, and her performance serves as the compelling emotional linchpin. As for Clooney, his wisecracking ends up becoming much more than simply light relief as “Gravity” hurtles towards its conclusion.
What’s astonishing to realize is that, whenever the actors are floating in space and not filmed in the interior of various pods, shuttles and space stations, the only thing that’s real is their faces. Every other element, from spacesuits to helmets to crumbling shuttles, debris and bodily fluids (a tear springs loose when Stone decides all is lost), was created using digital effects.
Besides being the single best advertisement for 3-D since “Avatar,” “Gravity”‘s images are so pristinely realized, and Cuaron’s long, lingering shots allow for phenomenal sequences of astronauts bashing into metal, parachute silk and one another, that the experience, while often unsettling and frightening, becomes pure cinematic nirvana. Memories in the film business may be short but, if anyone needed reminding, “Gravity” reaffirms Cuaron’s position as a filmmaker of uniquely thrilling excellence.