Film Review: Gravity

Groundbreaking 3D drama about astronauts in jeopardy offers both tense thrills and a gripping lead performance from Sandra Bullock. Box office should be out of this world.

The advance word is justified—Gravity takes its place with the other great landmarks of modern digital 3D cinema, Avatar, Hugo and Life of Pi. Director Alfonso Cuarón's film, his first since the masterly Children of Men seven years ago, recaptures some of the awed excitement '60s and '70s audiences felt on their first viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars.

The entire movie takes place in the dazzling and terrifying vastness of outer space, with only two characters (if you don't count one ill-fated fellow far in the background who has perhaps two lines). They are veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who is feeling rather queasy about her first shuttle mission. And soon enough, her trepidation is justified.

Cuarón tops the virtuosic single take of an attack on a vehicle and its occupants in Children of Men with an amazing opening 13-minute sequence which begins at a very far distance and gradually closes in on Stone and Kowalski at work outside their spacecraft, bantering good-naturedly. Then, in the very same take, they're ordered to abort their repair mission and get inside their ship due to reports of oncoming, fast-moving debris from a destroyed Russian satellite. Again, within the same shot, the astronauts and their ship are hit by the hurtling space junk and Bullock becomes untethered from the craft.

Kowalski rescues Stone from oblivion, but more threats loom. Cut off from all communication with Earth and with their oxygen running out, their only recourse is to venture farther out into the void towards a Russian space station.

Like Robert Redford's upcoming solo seafaring drama All Is Lost, Gravity is a stripped-down tale of survival—stripped-down in the narrative sense, but incredibly visually rich and nail-bitingly suspenseful. Bullock, always one of our most relatable actresses, is the audience surrogate we root for, in arguably her most demanding and emotionally open performance ever. Gravity is essentially her show, as for long stretches of time she is alone onscreen, fighting against panic and dread and desperately weighing her options for survival. As the script written by Cuarón and his son Jonas proceeds, Stone will be faced with one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after another, and Bullock fully inhabits those moments of crisis with stunning immediacy. Clooney has essentially a supporting role, but he’s persuasive as an old space hand, bringing his trademark insouciance to the role and adding lightness to the movie’s dire predicament.

The third star of Gravity is the team of craftspeople who deliver the movie’s remarkable visuals. Cuarón’s longtime cinematographer, the great Emmanuel Luzbecki, worked with production designer Andy Nicholson and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber on the blend of live actors with a CGI outer-space environment, and the results are seamless. Bullock spent much of her time suspended in something dubbed the Light Box, an enclosure with 196 panels of LEDs flashing colored lights on the actress’ face—an isolated situation which Bullock says enhanced her performance. The behind-the-scenes footage on the Blu-ray release will be fascinating, but the proof of the technology’s success is the illusion that Gravity was made “on location” in space, with immersive 3D impact. Cuarón and his team have created screen spectacle with a searing human dimension, and bring a true sense of wonder to a groundbreaking movie experience.