Which isn't to say that Cuarón makes things easy on his audience. "Life in space is impossible," announces an opening title card, as Steven Price's overbearing score reaches a deafening roar that ends with abrupt silence. The discombobulated feel never lets up; the extraordinary sound design keeps pace with the restless camera.
Despite the landmark feats on display, "Gravity" fails to deliver an equally involving story. The Cuaróns' screenplay maintains a steady pace and some invigorating one-liners for Clooney's typically suave character, but also clumsily attempts to work around the isolation of the characters by giving them somewhat uninspired, histrionic monologues.
Bullock, a bigger protagonist than Clooney and on her own for long stretches of the running time, engages in a prolonged conversation with herself that suffers from a forced sentimentality out of sync with the rest of the movie . But she still makes for a compelling survivalist, her frenzied state nicely complimented by Clooney's usual and in this case especially welcome smirking routine. There's certainly ample humanism to legitimize the threat of sudden death.
After a lengthy "hike" to the nearby space station, the duo face another set of problems that further complicates the stakes of the scenario, but Cuarón wisely changes up the surroundings. Inside the station, the space suits come off, and the audiovisual quality of the experience shifts dramatically. Contrasting the safe haven of the ship interior with the yawning apathy outside of it, Cuarón sustains a love-hate relationship with the harsh conditions. "I hate space," Ryan sighs in a moment of humorous understatement, yet neither she nor the filmmakers can deny its epic beauty: The Earth, as much a character as the abyss around it, maintains a haunting presence, its sprawling continents on full view for much of the movie and glimmering beneath the atmosphere.
The constant visual bombardment makes it hard to entirely forget the fabricated qualities that give "Gravity" its appeal. Some of the POV shots lack the realism of the exteriors; it doesn't take a trained eye to spot the less polished examples of CGI imagery. But "Gravity" gets away with dropping some of its realism because it's implicitly about the evolution of new media.
Compared by one recent viewer to watching someone play a video gamer progress from one level to another, "Gravity" is a uniquely contemporary work that merges the traditions of a conventional survival narrative with modern sights and sounds. Cuarón succeeds to a stunning degree at conveying the physicality of an otherworldly scenario rather than departing from it as so many over-processed blockbusters do. While unquestionably escapism, as minimalist spectacle, it delivers unprecedented delights.
For that reason, the regular story elements are something of a red herring. "Gravity" may suffer from being discussed as filmmaking in any usual sense. Cuarón, always one eager to tinker with film form, here has taken on the role of an Imagineer-like visionary, crafting a cinematic rollercoaster that's both visceral and dreamlike in its capacity pull viewers into a queasy encounter with the realistic perils of space. "Gravity" lets you visit space without sugarcoating its dangers. It's a brilliant portrait of technology gone wrong that uses it just right.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A hit with critics since it opened the Venice Film Festival in September, "Gravity" continued gathering acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival and faces tremendous anticipation ahead of its release this Friday. The combination of star power, interest in the genre and technological wizardry should help it perform strongly and maintain some momentum during awards season, when Bullock, the Cuaróns and Lubezki all have a shot at recognition.
A version of this review was originally published during the 2013 Telluride Film Festival.