Where did this inkling, this utterly precise marriage of scope and command, originate? The tragedy of our times is also its greatest irony: we live at the epicenter of an era of technological breakthroughs and unbound imaginations, yet our art forms (namely, the movies) have lost the romanticism of ideas and have reduced genres like science fiction to surface achievements: explosions, technical wizardry and immense visual style, but little to no cerebral relevance. Lasting impressions, however, are made only in part because of the visual scope; if you consider “Metropolis,” “2001” or even “Blade Runner,” the enduring fascination they carry is rooted in their ideas and theories, and the brilliant visuals serve only as a way to elaborate on them. “Gravity” takes the audacious stance of seeing its namesake as a rapidly devolving prototype, and rejects the notion. There is no grandiose scheme or series of explosive battles occurring here on the open field of the universe – only the presence of two simple characters, an unfortunate series of circumstances, and the great orb of Earth as the foreboding backdrop.
The film stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, as astronaut partners on a mission to repair a space sattelite. She is a newbie on her first excursion to the outer reaches of Earth’s orbit, and he is a seasoned vet anxious to finish his final stint before retiring. Their conversations – with each other and with Houston mission control – are simple but organic: he has a flair for telling stories in which he always comes out rosy, and she chuckles while mostly concentrating on the work (and, perhaps intentionally, leaving details of her own personal life out of the moment). While they and additional faceless comrades conduct repairs on the ship, the camera follows the Clooney character in one unbroken shot as he dances between platforms and ventures briefly out into the empty space in front of him. The visage of Earth reflects back into his helmet, and just as the wonder of the view sweeps over his face, so does it enthrall the audience: these are succinct and effective usages of imagery, and the swooping cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki creates an immense sense of depth and weightlessness (especially in 3D, which makes this perhaps only the third film I have ever seen that actually warrants the overused technology).
Ten minutes of unbroken work pass, and then a warning from Houston: debris left over from a Russian missile attack have left the atmosphere and are now circling the Earth at alarmingly swift rates. This prospect presents an immediate danger to those on the outside of the shuttle; if the debris move through their work space, it runs the risk of throwing them off course or, worse yet, causing certain injury or death. Scarce moments pass before the first wave of material passes into view, and the crew has no time to react. Bullock is ordered to finish her work, or abandon it to preserve her safety. The soundtrack cues to an intense series of chords. And then parts of the ship are torn in half from sudden impact, their sound non-existent because of space’s quintessential rule: without an atmosphere, noise cannot carry. The three astronauts on the exterior of the ship are thrown abruptly off course, especially the Bullock character: resting at the end of a metal arm jutting from one of the ship’s facades, her anchor spins violently out of control, and she is forced to unbuckle. The second law of space: physics are a tricky thing when there’s no gravity to slow or stop sudden motions.
That the movie makes conscious endeavors to show these details in sweeping shots underscores the vastness of Cuarón’s restrained special effects: they are not obvious, but the physics and choreography of them act as an imprint meant to keep us aware of their overwhelming presence. The material that follows for the next hour is relentlessly devoted to the cause, too. Bullock spins violently out of control (and nearly out of sight of the planet), and when Clooney catches up with her, they engage in a slow and tense trek back to the shuttle’s remains, with nothing to cling to but opposing ends of a tether. Those left behind at the original site have all been killed because of the debris storm, which leaves the two in an even graver predicament: how can they possibly survive the experience when the next possible refuge is a space station several minutes away, and one of their oxygen tanks is getting dangerously close to emptying?
Situations worsen. New obstacles intervene. For 90 whole minutes that “Gravity” has a grip on us, there is unrelenting tension and chaos, and an isolated catastrophe becomes an intense struggle for basic survival. At the center are two performances by Clooney and Bullock that are deadpan: they absorb the material like people who have been put through exhausting preparation, and all that remains is their very core instincts. The optimism of Clooney is contrasted by the fear and exhaustion of Bullock, and when she assumes control of the spotlight in the latter half of the film, her situation dims in a way that seems almost like a consequence of her pessimism. And yet she continues on, finding alternatives, bracing for last-minute changes to uncertain plans, and always remaining steadfast even as odds deteriorate. Faster and faster she hurdles towards oblivion, in an environment that is quiet, dark and brooding, like a giant ravenous hole aching to absorb whatever matter wanders far beyond the safety net of a planetary orbit.
Isolated frames of the movie will no doubt be studied and admired for years. How did Cuarón so effectively stage the presence of weightlessness in the internal scenes, especially with the camera never remaining at a static place (which might have helped cloak an obvious illusion)? To what depth did he study the physics of the scenario, or the anatomy of his characters? The material is, above all other things, indicative of an artist whose research was immense and detailed, and he uses so much of it in the movie’s framework that it’s a wonder so little of it is visible at the seams. Just as astounding, perhaps, is how modest the narrative is, and how we get caught up so easily in the peril of its characters and the worry in their faces even as they are surrounded by incredibly understated technical magic. “Gravity” is a return to the tradition of “2001” and “Minority Report,” and as both a movie and a piece of art it shows a visionary reach the pinnacle of his brilliant abilities.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Science Fiction (US); 2013; Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language; Running Time: 90 Minutes
Sandra Bullock: Ryan Stone
George Clooney: Matt Kowalski
Ed Harris: Mission Control (voice)
Produced by Alfonso Cuarón, Chris DeFaria, David Heyman, Stephen Jones, Nikki Penny and Gabriela Rodriguez; Directed by Alfonso Cuarón; Written by Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón