Space, the vast emptiness encompassing every element both known and unknown to man, is one of life’s greatest enigmas. The existence of mankind depends on its stability, yet in its uncertainty lies its beauty. Only a select few ever have the chance to explore this boundless void, leaving the rest of the world to wonder what lies beyond the sky.
If “Gravity” is any indication, the answer is something as terrifying as it is breathtaking.
In his first film since 2006’s “Children of Men,” director Alfonso Cuarón presents a thrilling and wholly immersive masterpiece that rockets through the current atmosphere of cinematic mediocrity and straight to the front of the Oscar race.
It opens with two astronauts suspended in space, repairing the space shuttle Explorer. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is nervous on her first journey out of the atmosphere, while veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) takes in the last mission of his career; playfully chatting with Mission Control (an unseen Ed Harris) below. All goes according to plan until they learn that debris from a Russian satellite is hurtling toward them at an alarming speed.
When that debris collides with the shuttle, Stone is sent careening into the darkness and all communication with the earth is lost. The two astronauts are left compleely alone, running dangerously low on oxygen, fuel, and hope.
Such isolation, though, should not be interpreted as monotony, because “Gravity” is anything but dull. Defying the convention of car-chasing, fist-swinging action sequences of other blockbusters, Cuarón capitalizes on the nothingness of space to build tension through the anticipation of inevitable destruction.
Watching space stations crumble is staggering in itself, but when the only accompanying sound is Bullock’s panicked breathing (since the camera’s perspective is locked within her space suit), the scene becomes that much more stunningly authentic.
From Cuarón’s brilliant, 17-minute, single shot opening scene, he perfectly captures the immense beauty of Earth and fully immerses us in the emptiness of space that we, in an ever-changing interactive world, are afraid to comprehend. And just as the great mystery of space both terrifies and excites us, “Gravity” dazzlingly juxtaposes tense nail-biting scenes with gorgeous panoramas enhanced by 3D effects.
The story (by Cuarón and his son Jonas) oscillates between despair and courage, and Bullock masters both in an outstanding performance. While she is best known for lighter roles in romantic comedies, her understated tour-de-force in “Gravity” is a testament to her dramatic range.
Both physical and emotional barriers compromise her return to Earth, as her young daughter’s death haunts her and makes her question the point of trying to survive. Her complete isolation from society and even herself tests her very will to live, yet she manages to confront her fears without the securities of Earth to fall back on.
Throughout the film, Cuarón gradually unveils his characters’ personalities and struggles, but Kowalski’s overly optimistic outlook just seems out of place. He casually listens to country music while Stone hyperventilates at the smallest malfunction. The script doesn’t seem to realize the trappings of this incongruity, but Clooney works well in the role.
In spite of this minor distraction, Cuarón’s drive for innovation in both story and cinematography delivers a thoroughly engrossing film that is both thrilling and terrifying, perfectly mirroring humanity’s conception of the vast wonders beyond our world.
**** ½ out of five