Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s explosive, white-knuckle sci-fi instant classic is a wonder to behold, with devastatingly realistic effects as a backdrop to a terrifying, compelling story and terrific work by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It is both a concrete what-if story and a mesmerizing existential mindbender.
The U.S Space Shuttle Explorer is docked at the International Space Station (ISS). Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock, “The Heat“), on her first space mission, is installing an external device on the station that will enable astronomers to peer even deeper into space. Meanwhile, the mission commander Matt Kowalski (Clooney, “The Descendants“), on his final mission, merrily spacewalks in a jet pack; other crew members perform maintenance or communicate with Earth.
Then trouble strikes. Houston reports that the Russians have blown up one of their own satellites, hurling debris throughout Earth’s orbit. Before the crew can return to the shuttle and head back to Earth, the craft and the ISS are pounded with lots and lots of pieces of metal debris traveling at extreme speeds. The damage is extensive, setting off an odyssey for Dr. Stone that is both literal and figurative, as she must find a way to keep going and return back home.
There is hardly a moment of inaction. Stone and Kowalski veer from problem to problem, everything accentuated by the simple fact that they are completely alone up there, not even able to contact NASA for a reassuring voice. It’s a terrifying situation. Most of us might have a slight panic attack if we’re stranded on the side of the road without a cell phone. Now imagine being up in the heavens with no way to get down.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s dizzying camerawork serves two purposes: It provides us with Stone’s visual perspective — that of a novice — and it provides context for the disaster she and Kowalski find themselves in. If you think that the pictures from the Hubble telescope were beautiful, wait until you see these breathtaking visuals; they’re as stirring and evocative as the acting and story itself. And while I’ve noted before that 3D in movies — especially in darkened environments like outer space — is utterly needless and can often ruin the viewing experience (the 3D process actually removes light from scenes), it somehow works in Gravity. The technology is used so expertly here by the visual effects teams that whether we are approaching an object at high velocity or it is approaching us, we feel immersed in the scene, not distracted from it.
As for the plot itself, I simply cannot delve into it any more other than to say Stone’s journey, as I alluded to earlier, becomes more than just a path back to the safety of Earth. She is grieving in her own profound way, having become a quiet, almost listless passenger in life. Her decisions and her proactive attitude not only bring her closer to survival but also to a healing of her mind. Bullock’s portrayal of this fractured character is definitely among her finest work — perhaps her greatest acting achievement to date.
But there is more to Gravity than just fantastic storytelling supported by arresting cinematography. There are plenty of heart-stopping moments in it that will satisfy even the most jaded of viewers and for the more astute there are plenty of twists that make guessing the outcome difficult. And although it may be too early for a movie to get serious award-season consideration, I’ll come out and say it right now: Gravity is one of the very best movies of the year.