"I hate space," says Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in "Gravity," and little wonder as to why. Up to this point in Alfonso Cuarón's space survival drama she's been propelled into the void with her oxygen nearly depleted, looked (literally) through the head of a fellow astronaut battered by space debris, and barely escaped a flash fire on a Russian space module she plans to use for her escape to Earth. It ain't easy being an astronaut.
But, space, as her colleague Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) points out, is also a place of grandeur, even in the most dire circumstances: As he floats away, seemingly lost in space, he wonders at the beauty of the sunrise over the Ganges. Throughout the film Earth sits in the background -- a curved, luminous presence with land masses that are largely undecipherable, as if Cuarón wanted to look at the planet in an entirely new way than in previous films set in space. (Is that the Nile? Indonesia? It's difficult to tell.) Not since Stanley Kubrick sent an astronaut spinning to his doom has the weightless void seemed as majestic and disorienting.
Comparisons to "2001: A Space Odyssey" are to be expected. Like Kubrick, Cuarón is a visual storyteller with more on his mind than thrills. But "Gravity" is less an epic cosmic journey about man’s evolution than a compact story about the resilience of the human spirit. Taking place in real time, it tells the story of a woman who has all but given up on life forced into a life and death situation.
That comes after a lyrical opening sequence -- an incredible single-shot that would have Hitchcock envious -- in which three astronauts are viewed working on (and playing around) a space telescope. Dr. Stone is the newbie in the group, brought into space because of her expertise in fixing the telescope, and her methodical no-nonsense attitude contrasts with the frat boy behavior of her comrades, specifically Kowalsky -- a raconteur who amuses mission command (the voice of Ed Harris) with his stories. He’s out to break a space walking record held by Russians; little does he realize that it very well may happen.
When the Russians destroy one of their spy satellites, the debris causes a chain reaction, creating a hail-like storm of debris that sends Dr. Stone and Kowalksy into space and kills the rest of their crew. If you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you get a taste of the anxiety that Dr. Stone feels as she spins aimlessly in the moments following the catastrophe. But that’s just the beginning -- from there, Dr. Stone and Kowalsky face numerous life-threatening obstacles as they attempt to find their way back to Earth.
"Gravity," then, is a seamless fusion of special effects and existential drama told virtually in real-time. The film runs barely over 90-minutes, unusual for a space epic; and, even more unusual, is what they call in the theater a "two-hander," focusing on just two characters in a life-threatening dilemma.
But despite its theatrical narrative device, it could only be a movie. Cuarón’s camera (superbly lensed by Emmanuel Lubezki) never grounds the viewer; it is as much a visual poem about weightlessness than it is special-effects-ridden Hollywood Sci-fi movie. In this way, its use of 3D borders on the revolutionary; like "Hugo" and "Life of Pi," it allows for complete immersion. If ever there was a movie designed for the IMAX format, it is this one.
While the back-story may creak a bit, it does nonetheless give this film an emotional through-line that makes its final shot so resonant. The power of that image can’t really be discussed without giving too much away, but let it be said that it is triumphant, not only because it completes the narrative threads, but also it, at last, gives meaning to the film’s title. In a way, the film acts as a corollary to Cuarón’s last film (the extraordinary "Children of Men"), which is also a story of survival, but this time more intimate and poetic.
A second viewing made it apparent how remarkable Sandra Bullock’s performance is. Long the most agile of actresses, she moves through space with a dancer’s grace; it is one of the most demanding physical performances by an actress in some time. But Bullock also gets inside this woman, giving her personal struggle meaning and eloquence.
Clooney acts as her foil, throwing off anecdotes as if he were on a late night talk show. He also supplies the needed support Dr. Stone needs when her world is thrown out of joint. "Gravity" makes that crisis real and does so with an equal mix of awe-inspiring beauty and thrills. Few films will leave you as breathless as this one. But don’t wait to watch it on a television, no matter how large that flat screen may be. To fully appreciate "Gravity," get to an IMAX near you.