(by Dustin Putman
A revolutionary cinematic leap beyond the stratosphere, "Gravity" is alarming, intoxicating, eloquent, stomach-tossingly terrifying and emotionally shattering. It is also a prime example of exactly why the term, "awe-inspiring," was created, its fluid, seamless, photorealistic depiction of outer space as breathlessly authentic as, perhaps, any motion picture that has been made, to date. At 600 kilometers above Earth, there is no oxygen, no air pressure, and no sound—three facts that writer-director Alfonso Cuarón (2006's "Children of Men") and his son, co-writer Jonás Cuarón, steadfastly abide by as they place two astronauts in a setting so vast and a situation so perilous that it will prove virtually unthinkable for most viewers. Using state-of-the-art digital effects the likes of which have scarcely been seen before—the film spent years in development, waiting for technology to advance to the appropriate level—the elder Cuarón puts his audience through an exhilarating tailspin while actualizing onscreen technical feats that are just about as close to being in space as one could imagine while still having his or her feet planted firmly on the ground. Article continues below
NASA medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first voyage to space, supervised by mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as she works to initiate a scanning system just outside the planet's atmosphere. When they are accosted by debris from a Russian satellite, the Space Shuttle Explorer is destroyed and the rest of their crew is killed instantly. With no other choice, Ryan separates from her cargo bay arm and finds herself thrust into the limitless expanses of space. Cut off from communication with Mission Control and her correspondence with Kowalski fading fast, Ryan is faced with depleting oxygen and certain death unless rescue arrives.
Opening with a bravura 13-minute shot, seemingly unbroken, the camera swirling around Stone and Kowalski while moving in for close-ups and out for majestic long shots, "Gravity" instantaneously drops the viewer into these characters' present truths and then observes as things go rapidly south. As impressive as this and the ensuing 75 minutes are from an aesthetic perspective, the movie would not be nearly as remarkable without its thoughtful human sensibilities. The narrative, which turns in a number of surprising directions that ensure a ceaseless tug-of-war tautness as the stakes continue to build, has been wisely shielded from most advertising and promotional materials. There is much more to the film than a dangerously detached Stone drifting through the stars, and it comes as an additional benefit to not know in advance where things are headed. From the realization that hope is dwindling, she is struck by the devastating notion that no one on Earth would miss her if she was suddenly gone from the world. She once had a little girl, until a freak accident on a playground took her life. Since then, she has been stuck in an everyday loop, never moving forward, afraid to live herself. Glaring in the eye of her own mortality may, coincidentally, be exactly what she needs to make peace with the tragedies that have befallen her and move on.
If Sandra Bullock (2013's "The Heat") can win an Academy Award for 2009's trite, treacly "The Blind Side," then she probably deserves to win two as Dr. Ryan Stone, caught between her tortured struggle to let go of her debilitating grief for her child and her determination all the same to live another day. Literally untethered in the universe but mentally pinned down by her own anguish, she locates a strength within her soul she never knew she had. One could view the story from a feminist perspective—and it is inspiring in this regard—but more than that it is a stirring, cogent look at the human condition in its purest, most vulnerable form. Bullock, in every scene, gives a performance of immeasurable artistry, a ballet dance of movement and physicality, but also of raw dramatic honesty. In a haunting, comparatively smaller turn, George Clooney (2011's "The Descendants") sheds his movie-star aura but none of his movie-star charisma as Kowalski, a veteran astronaut with a personable, but also practical, outlook. Even as hope looks drear, he remains professional and calm, accepting of his fate and giving himself over to it.
"Gravity" is a complete, unblemished convoy for the kind of thrills and sense of wonder seldom attained in film, but it is so much more than even that. A study in coming to grips with the eventuality of death and one's fight for survival in a world as mysterious as it is transcendentally beautiful, the picture boldly takes the science fiction genre into a realm where it nearly ceases being fiction at all. Adhering pretty consistently to scientific accuracy, director Alfonso Cuarón has made a contemporary work for the ages, a dazzling paragon that will be looked at and revered for decades to come as a turning point in the ongoing development of the art form. Frightfully claustrophobic and disorienting in the best way, the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (2013's "To the Wonder") is immaculate, bringing intimacy as well as grandeur to its unforgettable tableau. The music score, too, hits all the right notes, Steven Price's (2013's "The World's End") propulsive yet elegant compositions another element which enriches the greater whole. Absorbing the viewer in a 91-minute experience impossible to forget, "Gravity" puts an exclamation point on what a marvel the universe truly is. Infinitely larger and greater than ourselves, we are a part of it—a blink of an eye within the cosmos. It is an existential concept that is oddly soothing, one that "Gravity" gloriously realizes in a way that precious few movies in memory ever have.