Say this for Alfonso Cuarón, he never likes doing the same thing twice. The Oscar-nominated director whatever he wants and makes it his own—and this time, he takes on the real terror of outer space.
There are no aliens here, just heroic, flawed humans in terrible danger. “Gravity” starts off with first-time astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) struggling with her movements in space while mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is trying to help her. “I have a bad feeling about this mission,” Kowalski says. But debris from destroyed satellites strike and their orbiting shuttle Explorer is destroyed and contact with mission control is lost, leaving Stone and Kowalski stranded in the deep black sea of space—and seemingly without any way of coming home. “I hate space,” Stone whispers.
And that is just the start of the movie. Unfolding in real time (a relatively brief but relentlessly harrowing 90 minutes), “Gravity” is what happens when you take Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” and then take things a step further—while shooting what happens outside of the spacecraft instead of inside. It is probably how a real-life spacecraft disaster would happen today. “Gravity” is what happens when you make what appears to be a contradiction—a realistic space thriller. There are no cutaways, no parallel storylines, just two people stuck.
To do this, Cuarón, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber utilize newly developed technology—a combination of filters, harnesses and mechanical arms to mimic impressively but fluidly the physics of being in space, the feeling of weightlessness. The effect is startling, as the viewer is plunged from agoraphobia to claustrophobia from one scene to another. The audience is effectively plunged into zero gravity. Helping set the terrifying mood is composer Steven Price’s thudding score.
Written by Cuarón and his son Jonas, “Gravity” is a reflection on the physical ordeal as well as the existential dread that comes with being literally lost in space. It’s not a conventional story in terms of theme, but its linear structure drags the viewer through periods of stifling stillness and furious action. There are no flashbacks, just an aggressive present and an unknown future. “I’m telling you, it’s a hell of a story,” says Kowalski.
It is rare to see any kind of Hollywood film have such a small cast. Clooney’s Kowalski is smooth and self-assured, the perfect astronaut with the calm voice and assuring presence. He is determined to get Doctor Stone safely home.
But “Gravity” is Bullock’s show. The Oscar-winning actress begins the film as a relatively meek geek who is barely competent outside the lab, but has to pull herself together to survive.
“Gravity” takes away all the confidence Stone has and replaces it with layers upon layers of uncertainty. What would you do in her situation? Instead of big, dramatic gestures, Bullock’s Doctor Stone is revealed in her short, panicked breaths; in her unsure, quick motions. It’s a great exhibition of subtle, contained acting, and the last thing you’d expect to see in a movie about catastrophe above the Earth.
That fits because “Gravity” is certainty something you didn’t expect from Cuarón. A mix of the expected and unexpected, “Gravity” is an unconventional but effective drama about how far one needs to go to survive in the worst situation possible, as well as further proof that Alfonso Cuarón is good at whatever he decides to do.
Warner Bros.’ “Gravity” opens in IMAX 3D, Digital 3D, 2D and regular theaters on Oct. 3