“You just point the damned thing at Earth. It’s not rocket science.”
Director Alfonso Cuaron’s outer space pressure cooker Gravity is a worthy and thrilling follow-up to his 2007 masterpiece Children of Men, a gritty dystopian sci-fi epic which contained, among other set pieces, an unbroken 8-minute shot tracking the protagonist’s desperate navigation of a raging urban war zone that remains the most staggering and visceral battle sequence I’ve ever seen on film. With Gravity, Cuaron attempts to one-up his own classic work by maintaining the former’s ridiculous intensity level but turning the entire film into one woman’s existential struggle against the implacable void of outer space, with outstanding results. Sandra Bullock does career-best work, largely alone on a cold, dead stage, as the green civilian scientist whose mettle and will to live is sorely tested when a storm of rocketing debris suddenly obliterates her shuttle, killing one of her two colleagues, untethering her mid-space walk and hurtling her out into the abyss, terrified, with frighteningly limited options, oxygen and experience on which to draw.
Despite the presence of George Clooney, charming and economical in what could most accurately be termed the “George Clooney role”, the film’s other star is Cuaron’s unbound camera, which sometimes floats beside Bullock and sometime lives in her helmet, lending you-are-here immediacy to every moment, providing spacial orientation and disorientation in equal measure, and bringing as much life to the myriad little details found in the procession of rapidly deteriorating environments Bullock’s scientist occupies as to the face of the frazzled but determined mission specialist herself. The CGI, largely unobtrusive, is magnificent throughout, imparting impressive weight and weightlessness as situations dictate. Gravity is the most (and, frankly, only) convincing argument for the merits of 3-D filmmaking I’ve seen. It’s best to let the film’s scenarios and surprises unfold naturally, but suffice it to say that every small victory Bullock achieves is almost immediately undone or spun into a bigger crisis. It’s also probably best to not dwell on the hard scientific accuracy of Gravity, but rather to luxuriate in its attention to detail, and its near-total command of both tone and place.
There are definitely moments when Cuaron’s limitations as a writer peek through the veil, particularly an odd, ineffective interlude before the movie explodes back to life and careens toward its frantic endgame. From a filmmaking perspective, however, he is damn near flawless. Cuaron is unparalleled at using smart blocking, taut writing and technical wizardry to elicit pure emotional response, and the emotions on display here are as vast as his infinite black backdrop. Consider the sound of Bullock’s tortured, oxygen-deprived breathing as she claws at something – anything – to grab onto; See how both fire and tears manifest themselves in zero-gravity; Witness a space shuttle decimated to rubble just a few feet from our scrambling heroine; Go on your own spacewalk, in a lovely, prolonged moment where the film just regards the Earth in silence and awe as Bullock floats above it, reflected in her visor, seemingly close enough to touch, as we realize she is wracked with the knowledge of just how far away it is in reality. Gravity is not perfect. As perhaps the first fully realized film of its kind, I don’t think it could be. It is, however, a serious achievement – in special effects, in solo performance, in efficient, evocative filmmaking. It’s a showstopper.
“Gravity” (2013) 4/4 stars