Gravity is a celebration of the primal pleasure of movies: It shows you things you’ve never seen before, transports you out of the theater and out of your head, tricks you into believing what’s happening on the screen is happening to you. The film, which took director Alfonso Cuarón five years to make, is as big of a technological breakthrough as Avatar. But Gravity is closer in spirit to Titanic, a giant-sized spectacle that came to hinge on two people floating on a piece of wood, clinging for their lives.
In Gravity, two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) end up floating in outer space, clinging to each other for their lives. Clooney is the experienced veteran who’s constantly joking with NASA ground control (voiced by Ed Harris, in a clever homage to Apollo 13) and spouting playful banter (“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.”). Bullock is the scientist on her first mission into space, tasked to conduct repairs on the Hubble telescope. She’s nervous, inexperienced, awestruck. “What do you like about being up here?” Clooney asks her via radio. “The silence,” she replies. “I could get used to it.”
Although the movie’s trailers used sound effects, Gravity adheres to the laws of science, rendering outer space as a silent void. Cuarón relies heavily on music, like Stanley Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the original score by Steven Price isn’t just a complement to the film’s jaw-dropping visuals. The music is a critical element in the film, piping in not only from the screen but also from behind and around you, helping to bewilder and dislocate you when hurtling debris destroys the telescope in a vast, soundless explosion. Your eyes take a moment to process what’s happening, because the usual sonic cues aren’t there to guide you. The effect is shocking and terrifying, the first of the movie’s many triumphs of pure craftsmanship..
Gravity, which Cuarón wrote with his son Jonás, never lets up after that initial catastrophe. The tension is relentless. Bullock is sent flying through space, her oxygen supply running low. Clooney is still able to navigate with his jet pack, but he’s running out of fuel. The debris that caused the first accident is still orbiting the planet, circling around to wreak more havoc when you least expect it, like the shark from Jaws.
Although Gravity is an unabashed entertainment, the movie also becomes an existential rumination on the human instinct to survive. Bullock has no one waiting for her back on Earth: She has devoted herself entirely to her work in order to stave off a crippling depression. And now, with no conceivable hope for rescue — communication with ground control is gone — there is a great temptation to just float away into a quiet death. But there is also terror: Our innate fear of death is the strongest motivator of all. Survival is not going to be easy, though.
In an era when movies, even good ones, often overstay their welcome, Gravity defies the bloat that has seeped into everything from comic-book movies to Judd Apatow comedies. The film runs a tight and harrowing 90 minutes, unfolding in something close to real time. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has shot almost all of Cuarón’s pictures, does magical things with his camera, which floats weightlessly through the movie like its characters, sometimes pushing through the astronauts’ glass helmets to give us a close-up of their eyes, then turning around to show us exactly what they are seeing, all without any visible cuts. Much of Gravity is told via impossibly long, uninterrupted shots, but Cuarón uses the editing technique to draw us closer into the drama, the way he did during the startling car chase in Children of Men. You will believe this movie was shot in outer space.
For all its visual wonders — and this is a picture that deserves to be seen in 3D, on as big of a screen as possible — Gravity might have just been a spectacular ride, a disposable wow-did-you-see-that? entertainment. Bullock is the film’s secret weapon, anchoring this enormous film with a sadness and vulnerability she’s never played before (she’s as resourceful as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley but not nearly as intrepid). Bullock’s trademark persona, her natural peppy charisma, is of no use here: The role forces the actress out of her comfort zone, and the result is a revelation. The movie is as much about her inner space as it is about outer space, and Bullock exceeds all expectations. Gravity dazzles and thrills like no other movie in recent memory, but it also moves you, too. And as you leave the theater, your feet planted firmly on the ground, you will be so thankful for gravity, that most underappreciated of all natural forces. Never again will you take it for granted.
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón.
Screenwriters: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón.
Producers: Alfonso Cuarón, David Heyman.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 90 minutes. Brief vulgar language, graphic images. Opens Friday Oct. 4 at area theaters.