There's an implicit irony to the title of "Gravity," director Alfonso Cuarón's lost-in-space odyssey, because gravity itself rarely enters into the equation. Almost entirely shot in a stunningly realistic but entirely digital representation of space, the movie might be the most spectacular two-hander of all time. Working from a script co-written with his son Jonás, Cuarón follows astronauts Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) on a space shuttle mission gone wrong and sticks with them as they drift around the planet in peril for 93 minutes.
The virtual camera almost never stops moving, in several directions, aping the weightlessness afflicting the characters with simultaneously hypnotic and disorienting results. Four years in the making, "Gravity" presents an artificial world that could only have been made today, and provides a fantastic showcase of new possibilities.
Cuarón has long explored the power of long, unbroken takes: "Children of Men" imbued battle scenes and car crashes with horrific realism, while "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" practically spent more time constructing its wizardly universe than forwarding the plot. His use of the approach here, however, takes on entirely new dimensions. In the roughly 13 minute opening shot, the shuttle slowly drifts into view while the planet pokes into the side of the frame, while the frame increasingly magnifies the performers, swirling about them as they tinker with the Hubble Telescope and trade barbs with mission control down below. While Matt enjoys a freedom of movement allowed by his jetpack, Ryan and a third colleague remain tethered to the vehicle, but their stability doesn't last long: The sudden announcement that shattered satellite debris is heading their way forces the trio into panic mode, but given little time to react, they're abruptly assaulted by speeding detritus and severed from their craft.
Cuarón doesn't cut once, creating the first of many immersions into the empty surroundings and the immediate sense that you're watching a historic achievement. Along with capturing the vividness of the accident, he roots it in human experience, as the camera gradually gets closer to his subjects and eventually makes its way into one of their helmets. Melting the CGI imagery into physical intimacy, Cuarón establishes a delicate balance largely in place for the frantic scenes that remain.
While some cinematographers have voiced trepidation over the role of their craft in the context of such heavily digitized techniques -- most recently, Christopher Doyle spoke out against "Life of Pi" winning an Oscar for Best Cinematography -- "Gravity" director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki clearly relishes the opportunity to play with new tools. Reflecting the same weightless of its subjects, the camera possesses the free-roaming quality of space itself. At times, it zips along with its subjects before hanging back and watching them transform into blinking lights against the unforgiving darkness, as if a traveling astrophotographer simply happened upon the dramas of the NASA crew.
The accomplishments of "Gravity" arrive right on schedule, representing the culmination of several years worth of purely green screen storytelling in Hollywood productions that include "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" as well as Zack Snyder's Spartan battlefields in "300." But while those movies and several others treated their fabricated worlds with traditional filmmaking techniques, "Gravity" uses them (along with an even more advanced motion control technology) in the service of a full-on ride.