‘Gravity’ May Be Film’s Most Thrilling—and Stressful—90 Minutes
Published: October 2, 2013
The hype is mostly justified. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity may not have any profound statements to make about the human will to survive, and its character development may be distractingly sentimental, but as a cinematic experience it’s hard to beat. In fact, it may be the most thrilling, transporting and unbearably stressful 90 minutes in the movie theater you have ever experienced.
Opening with a stunning 15-minute shot, we’re introduced to astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), floating 600,000 feet above the Earth as they repair the Hubble telescope. Kowalski is a retirement-bound veteran shuttle pilot who regales his colleagues with tales of past exploits while scooting around on his jetpack, playing country-western tunes. Stone is the nervous rookie, overseeing the telescope’s data upgrade. Clumsy in her unwieldy spacesuit and struggling to hold down her last meal, she tries to tune out Kowalski’s incessant banter and focus on the task at hand—no easy job, given that the full grandeur of Earth as seen from their perspective offers a sweeping, breathtaking spacescape.
It’s a light-hearted, joyously banal sequence that establishes the workaday rapport that exists between the crew. For us on Earth, it’s a rare and spectacularly mesmerizing glimpse into the world of orbital travel. For them, it’s another day at the office.
That breezy, placid mood is suddenly shattered as mission control reports the detonation of a Russian satellite half a world away. Debris is baring down on Hubble, traveling at thousands of miles per hour. From this moment on, Gravity becomes an extravagantly conceived and brutally intense disaster movie where the audience is immersed in the lyrical magnificence and dizzying terror of outer space.
The film’s chain reactions of destruction and zero-g catastrophe are as stunning to watch as they are harrowing to experience. Cuarón luxuriates in virtuoso long takes that capture the infinite loneliness of the void and the low-oxygen claustrophobic helplessness of watching as shrapnel-like pieces of machinery fly toward Bullock’s face. This is what 3D was made for, and Cuarón establishes its high watermark. Gravity’s optical wonderland not only sends objects off the screen and within our reach but also heightens the physical distances that lay between astronaut and salvation, increasing both the stakes and our heart rates. It also allows Cuarón to indulge in moments of three-dimensional poetry, as when Bullock’s tears gently float away from the screen. These moments are far more effective than his labored visual metaphors of rebirth.
Gravity’s sound design is equally revelatory, magnifying Bullock’s desperate and terror-filled gasps for air, then taking us into the dread silence of sound-deadening space. Steve Price’s bass-heavy score is the perfect match, complementing the action with its heart-thrumming rhythms.
This is lean, mean plotting at its best, a ruthless exercise in “the good news is, the bad news is...” storytelling. Streamlined and taut, Cuarón (who penned the script with his son Jonás) expertly doles out brief moments of calm before the next unpredictable calamity strikes.