Gravity is among the most forceful, powerful films of the new century: a technical wunderkind of unthinkable complexity and a near-miraculous unity of seemingly incongruous elements — both bruisingly claustrophobic while set across the infinite expanse of space, both immediately accessible and sweepingly allegorical, psychologically punishing and totally uplifting, and perhaps rarest of all, touting big, big ideas to match its $100 million price-tag and two world-famous leads, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
The two play astronauts, Dr. Ryan Stone and Walt Kowalski, who are wrapping up a Hubble Telescope patch-up when they are abruptly warned of an incoming debris storm. The debris proves to destroy the telescope, most methods of communication and nearly all of their rides home — leaving the two adrift and alone, miles above everyone they love and everything they have to live for. The 90-minute film unfolds practically in real-time, and as Gravity progresses it becomes clear the film’s focus is largely on Bullock’s character, Dr. Stone, who is already recouping from a piercing personal tragedy. Thus, she must find the will to live again as cosmic chaos rages around her, turning Gravity into an unexpected tale of spiritual rebirth.
It is impossible to consider Gravity without the four years it took to craft; save for the actors’ faces, everything in the film is digitally rendered — every debris particle, every sweeping, jaw-dropping planetary panorama, even every movement of the characters’ space helmets and suits. It’s revolutionary technology applied for perhaps the most old-fashioned purpose of all — to awe, to transport, to inspire contemplation.
Gravity, indeed, sparks one to consider no less than the scale of the universe. Director Alfonso Cuarón (how have I not mentioned him yet?), working closely with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski and veritable armies of visual-effects artists, create shots that move past the excellent and into the impossible — consider the 17-minute-long opener, which telegraphs our characters’ descent from peaceful space exploration into tetherless catastrophe; consider a subsequent close-up that follows Bullock’s character spinning aimlessly, slowly forcing its way into her helmet and perspective. With a camera that floats and follows as gracefully as its weightless subjects, Gravity marks nothing less than the invention of an incredibly expressive, languid new language of the cinema.
Writer-director Alfonso Cuarón has cultivated one of the most intriguing, diverse bodies of work in modern cinema — from the low-budget sexual exploration of Y Tu Mama Tambien to the best Harry Potter installment, Prisoner of Azkaban, and most recently, the towering fatalistic masterwork Children of Men. When considered together, his films constitute a loose panoramic view of life’s key rituals — death, sex, coming-of-age, societal assimilation. Gravity finds itself at the center of all of them, with the protagonists’ remarkable proximity to death instilling an incredible want, a need to survive. The result is a film of non-stop, pummeling action sequences that all directly speak to and impact the spiritual conditions of the characters. It’s high-wire, high-stakes cinema at its most balletic and its most exciting. Art and commerce intersect to exhilarating ends.