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.
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.