Space, an endless body that is both mesmerizing and terrifying in its expanse and scope. Nothing inspires more wonder in this day and age, but films have left a gap in stories that take place there. Stanley Kubrick set the bar for space exploration when he made 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and very few movies have attempted to join that rarefied air since.
Alfonso Cuarón has been away from directing full-length features since 2006's Children of Men and the time he has spent away looks like it was well spent. Gravity received ecstatic reviews at screenings at the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals and all the good word rocketed up the expectations for the film in the wait for its release.
It can be safely said, that Gravity lives up to the hype.
This is Dr. Ryan Stone's (Sandra Bullock) first shuttle mission in space. She worked long and hard before making her transition from engineer to astronaut, with vet Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) joining alongside her for a repair job.
"It's beautiful don't you think" Matt asks as they go on a seemingly routine spacewalk. Ryan looks at the job with clinical detachment, acknowledging only her tasks when in the suit. She finds solace in her work in the silence of space, whereas Kowalski and other members of Explorer take glee in experiencing space first-hand.
The glee will be short-lived. An incoming warning from Houston halts their work: an exploding Russian satellite launches an onslaught of debris flying at them at frightening speeds. Stone, Kowalski and Sharif must abort the mission immediately to get inside if they have any hope of avoiding the wreckage.
Disaster strikes before they can really react and the shower of debris shower collides into the ship destroying the Explorer and stranding Stone and Kowalski completely alone in space. There are no links to Mission Control in Houston and the chances of rescue are slim as every panicked gulp of air leaves precious little oxygen remaining in Ryan's tank.
The film begins with a masterful continuous shot that runs the duration of the thrilling opening sequence. Few movies can get away with that little rapid-fire editing in the ADD age and even fewer attempt to do so with a hovering camera lingering next to characters. Emmanuel Lubezki, known for his spectacular work in Tree of Life and Children of Men, makes excellent use of a multitude of wide angle shots to convey the massive scope of space where everything moves in visual poetry.
Cuarón acknowledges the razor-thin room for error there is with audiences suspending disbelief so Gravity plays by the rules of reality. No deus ex machina rescues, no seemingly invincible characters, only astronauts left in a dangerous scenario. The film also abides by the lack of sound in space and with the exception of Steven Price's score, silence is deafening throughout the runtime of Gravity, each moment punctuated by Ryan's hurried breaths and gasps.
What could be casually dismissed as merely a roller coaster ride—the 3D does place viewers right in the chaos—goes deeper than all that. Much like the project that Alfonso Cuarón had to drop due to scheduling conflicts (2012's Life of Pi), this is a testament to the determination to live, even when life has lost some of its luster.
A lot is asked of Sandra Bullock and she delivers without fail. Any hint of emotional dishonesty could have sunk not only her performance, but the whole film as well. Fortunately, she withstands it all with authenticity and courage. Dr. Ryan Stone is one of the finer female characters to grace the screen in a decade where there are few.
Gravity is an ambitious project on a scale that is not seen much anymore, and watching Cuarón and Bullock succeed on an IMAX screen is a joy worth reveling in.