220 miles above the earth and with little chance of coming back down. That's not only the basic premise, but also the way one feels after having just watched Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron's long gestating follow-up to 2006's Children of Men. After literal years of hype and ecstatic festival buzz, the question for me was whether Cuaron's magnum opus could possibly meet my out-of-this-world expectations. The answer is a resounding YES. Gravity is a triumph; A groundbreaking invention of pure cinema that captivates from its awe-inspiring start to its potent final images.
The opening title card ominously warns that life in space is impossible, before cutting to the still serenity of Earth, glowing blue against the infinite blackness. A white dot creeps into view, slowly growing in the frame until we can recognize it as the space shuttle Explorer. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney doing his best George Clooney impersonation) and rookie Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are making repairs to the Hubble telescope. Matt makes jokes and regales mission control with amusing anecdotes while he putters around on his mobile thruster pack. Ryan is nervously tethered to her work, trying hard to keep her breakfast down on this routine mission. But of course, nothing about space travel is routine. With little warning, a field of satellite debris tears through the shuttle and leaves the space walkers stranded. From here, Gravity takes off on a dazzling roller coaster ride that rarely lets up, as Ryan must learn to defeat her traumas (past and present) and muster up the courage to make it back home.
Despite its celestial backdrop (and some sly allusions to pillars of the genre, from 2001 to Star Wars to even WALL-E), Gravity is not science-fiction. Cuaron strives to infuse his cosmic survival drama with a hyperrealism that puts the audience right in orbit with our imperiled heroes. He brilliantly emulates the sensation of weightlessness with a pageant of extended long takes wherein the camera floats seamlessly – uninterrupted for minutes on end – from one position to another, sometimes shifting right inside the astronauts' helmets so we can see from their exact point of view.
To achieve these miraculous shots, Cuaron spent years 'previsualizing' them in close collaboration with his effects team and his genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. After losing two Academy Awards that he arguably should have won (for Children of Men and The Tree of Life), one can hope and assume that this time an Oscar win for Lubezki in indisputable. Strive to see it in IMAX. Not just for its marvelously immersive 3D splendour; Glenn Freemantle's extraordinary sound design and the gripping sound mix are as essential to Cuaron's vision as the imagery on display, daring to accentuate the jaw-dropping moments with disquieting silence where a typical blockbuster would have gone with noise.
If there's a nit to pick with Gravity it's the screenplay, co-written by Cuaron and his son Jonas, and not even that is without its merits. While the writing isn't nearly as graceful as the visuals – it sometimes rankles with on-the-nose monologues that break the cinematic rule of 'show, don't tell!' – conceptually, the script is rather effective in its deceptive simplicity. Structured as a lean adventure serial in which Ryan must face and overcome one near-death obstacle after another, the plot is about as thin as the walls of the spacecraft that so precariously protect her from the undiscriminating vacuum of space. And yet that's all Cuaron needs to make Gravity an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride unlike any you've ever seen.
Similarly, Ryan's character arc is streamlined and seemingly meager, but it's all Sandra Bullock needs to carve out a believable and empathetic human presence on screen. She grounds Gravity's zero-G spectacle with a no-frills, physically demanding portrayal of a woman adrift (in every sense of the word), feeling a deadening disconnect with humanity and her home planet below. By her own admission, she likes space because she could get used to the silence. But as the sudden crisis incites a sort of emotional rebirth in her – a theme evoked by some of Lubezki's loveliest compositions – Bullock's performance reveals itself to be a powerful affirmation of the will to live, even when there appears to be nothing to live for.
It wouldn't feel right to call Gravity a masterpiece, flawed as it is, but for me it would also feel wrong to let its flaws dull my amazement. I'm sure that on repeat viewings (and I can't wait to get me some of those!) that it will still astonish and move me. Just as I'm sure that years from now, it will still stand as a singular landmark of the art form.
**** out of ****