By Benjamin Lucas
Gravity opens with a vibrant orchestral swell that subsides instantly into total silence as the screen is filled with a jaw-dropping view of Earth’s underside. From the distance, a white speck drifts into view. As it approaches, the buzzing of voices on an intercom becomes louder, and the audience begins to make out Matt Kowalski’s voice as he banters with mission control. The white speck is a space shuttle.
In these first few seconds, director Alfonso Cuaron conveys the utter vastness and isolation of space so thoroughly that you truly feel as if you’re drifting alongside lead astronaut Kowalski (George Clooney) and medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as they make trivial fixes to the exterior of the shuttle.
But the routine operation goes awry when the debris from a Russian satellite tears through their location and sends Stone careening into space. Now the mission has become survival.
There has been much discussion of the film’s first 13 minutes, which come in the form of a single unbroken shot as the camera sweeps up, down and around the station. It’s a mesmerizing feat of utter simplicity, and it’s all the time Gravity needs to set up its pieces (and then knock them all down in one fell swoop). It’s a simple premise, but not one to be second-guessed.
Gravity plays out like a standard disaster movie, but its technical prowess elevates it to something truly awe-inspiring. Cuaron’s camera is literally weightless as it follows the two astronauts’ struggle to survive, materializing at times through the glass of their helmets and treating the audience to a Joan-of-Arc-esque close-ups of Bullock (who delivers one of the rawest performances of her career) before whipping back around for a first-person viewpoint.
The 3-D version serves to make space even more convincing. For those fed up with 3-D movies (hello!), you will be impressed to see how well it transcends gimmickry and becomes an effective tool for storytelling in Gravity.
Unlike the bulk of entries in the nihilistic man vs. nature subgenre (Blair Witch Project, Open Water), Gravity takes the form of an action film, which is better suited to show off its technical qualities. Stone’s oxygen runs low. Kowalski runs out of fuel. Bits of rubble threaten to knock them about. Amidst all of the destruction, our main heroine has her own emotional baggage, which all seems to come to the surface as her situation becomes more dire.
Gravity sustains its economical 90 minutes with stomach-churning intensity. The sequences of the duo struggling to grab onto something are maddening. What’s worse than being stuck, alone, in a silent black void with no help incoming, with nothing to do but flail around pointlessly? The fear of hopeless isolation has never been this palpable.
Cuaron makes space lonely and terrifying, while Bullock effectively makes us feel her character’s panic and frustration. Meanwhile, Clooney plays off of her with the same coolness as in Ocean’s Eleven, providing a bit of levity, which is definitely more than welcome after a few particularly harrowing scenes.
Much of the film plays out in silence, accompanied by a score from composer Steven Price (who worked previously on Lord of the Rings). Price blurs the line between music and mere noise as Cuaron elects to have orchestral cues take the place of explosions and metal scraping against metal. The soundtrack drives the film as it rises and lowers, buzzes and crescendos, drawing you into its heart-in-the-throat predicament as effectively as the no-nonsense camerawork and performances.
This is a film that is best experienced in the theater. Every element of its ambitious and insane production is designed to draw you in. The effect may be lost slightly on home viewers, but that’s not to say that the film would be any less brilliant.