Gravity -- When you think of science fiction movies set in outer space, certain expectations come to mind. Notions of futuristic technologies, intergalactic battles, and exotic alien creatures are right at the top of the list.
The new movie "Gravity" contains none of that. In fact, the movie so defiantly refuses to rely on audience expectations or movie clichés that it ends up feeling like its own entity entirely.
Not since perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) has life in outer space been so convincingly depicted, and "Gravity" proves a similarly breathtaking experience. In fact, when at one point in the movie as Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) hovers in zero gravity in a fetal position (that also recalls "2001’s" "star child"), it proves symbolic as "Gravity" similarly possesses the feeling that movies themselves are being reborn as well.
Director Alphonso Cuaron shrewdly starts the movie off slowly, allowing us time to revel in the astonishingly beautiful imagery of the Earth observed from a few miles above its surface. We soon hear voices emanating from somewhere that isn’t immediately apparent, until a small space station slowly becomes visible. As the image moves closer, figures are soon detected around the craft, and it isn’t long before George Clooney’s familiar face (as Mission Commander Matt Kowalski) whizzes by in his space suit as he jets around the spacecraft with ease.
It’s a tremendous opening shot that serves as a peaceful prelude to the disastrous consequences to come. Just as importantly, it also introduces us to the sheer vastness of outer space that will prove such a formidable obstacle to the movie characters’ survival. It’s all part of director Cuaron’s apparent plan to completely immerse us in this environment with a degree of authenticity that provides the film with a captivating combination of fear and awe.
Meanwhile the film’s screenplay, courtesy of Cuaron and his son Jonas, kicks into high gear once the tranquility of this opening scene is shattered forever. Much in the same way the Coen Brothers were able to take a double crossing film noir plot in "Blood Simple" (1984) and wring every ounce of tension and drama from this scenario until the blood-soaked script was wrung dry, the Cuarons manage a similar feat here. Just as one potential disaster is dealt with, like a shower of space debris travelling at an instantly fatal rate of speed, there proves little time to relax, for yet another unforeseen life-threatening event soon rears its ugly head. It constantly forces the characters to live by their wits and rely on a certain amount of luck in order to survive as the film exploits the inherent dangers of venturing outside the safety of our Earth’s atmosphere with an unrelenting dramatic intensity. "Life in space is impossible," says the film’s opening credits, and Cuaron makes sure that you’ll believe it.
Of course, all this technological achievement would only be a science fanatic’s dream if it weren’t for convincing characters to populate this forbidding world. George Clooney provides the easy charm of raconteur-happy Commander Kowalski, with his laid-back demeanor and voice of reason offering a dramatic contrast to the more high-strung Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Crucially, his calm demeanor amidst the chaos provides as much of an emotional anchor for Stone’s survival as her actual spacesuit tether does a physical one.
Meanwhile Sandra Bullock gives the performance of her career in a role that forces her to delve deep into an abyss of volatile emotions as her very survival is constantly threatened. Bullock manages to carry the film for much of its running time, effectively dealing with any current potential catastrophe while constantly working to keep a distinct sense of panic at bay. It’s an extraordinary performance that must have been exhaustive for the actress, as merely watching it from the comfortable position of a movie theater seat proves tiring in the best possible way.
In fact, by the time the film ends, a satisfying sense of exhaustion soon takes hold, and the notion that you may have just seen one of the best movies of recent memory crosses your mind. "Gravity" manages to fully immerse you in its foreign environment so effectively that your ability to easily navigate your way out of the movie theater afterwards may be met with a new-found appreciation.
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.