‘Gravity’: You’re All Alone

By taking the simple leap between a character’s personal isolation and the equally terrifying physical isolation of space, Alfonso Cuaron creates a vertiginous masterpiece.


Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris, Paul Sharma
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-10-04

Even with all the James Cameron-level technical virtuosity on display in Alfonso Cuaron's elegantly suspenseful lost-astronaut drama Gravity, it retains a welcome element of austerity. The story boils things down to basics. After all, floating hundreds of miles above the Earth helps a character reduce their worries to the essentials: Oxygen, shelter, getting back on the ground without becoming a meteoric cinder. Of course, resolving those worries in this situation is more complex; it’s akin to solving a Rubik’s Cube while blind and in freefall.

These are the problems faced by Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a first-time astronaut who’s part of an American space shuttle crew working on the Hubble orbiting telescope. She and cool-under-fire veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are stuck outside the shuttle when a tumbling cloud of debris from an exploded Russian satellite whips past like pellets from a massive shotgun. The rest of the crew is killed, the shuttle damaged beyond repair, and Stone is sent floating off into space. She spins head over heels. The camera steals inside her helmet so that all we hear is her breathing and the fading sound of Kowalski’s radio, and all we see are the stars whipping past at sickening speeds. Although she is quickly grabbed by Kowalski, that short, horrifying experience of the void, both claustrophobic and endless, stays hauntingly in the background.

Cuaron’s love of fluidly integrated long takes is almost more impressive here than in 2006’s Children of Men. This slow-then-fast build helps better approximate a sensation of fright than your standard smash-cut change of editing and explosion of music. It makes for a contagious sense of slingshotting chaos and stomach-churning catastrophic spontaneity. The insistence on sticking to certain realities like the lack of sound in space (something directors of previous space sagas have never been able to stick to) layers a certain unreality to the calamity happening all around Stone and Kowalski. In the seconds after Mission Control -- voiced by Ed Harris in a respectful tip of the hat to Apollo 13 -- snaps “mission abort, mission abort,” Stone panics. Already barely able to keep from vomiting in zero-g and barely able to move in the heavy, clunky pressure suit, she has to switch to survival mode while having barely any of the tools (physical or experiential) necessary.

After the opening disaster, Gravity becomes an obstacle course. Stone and Kowalski’s only hope is to make it to the International Space Station and hope that there’s a working escape pod left. It doesn’t give anything away to say that things don’t work out that easy. The humans here are mere pinpricks of vulnerability arrayed against the awesome gorgeousness of space, captured with simple clarity by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. They try to aim themselves at an infinitesimal point in the distance. Everything is vectors and thrust; miss the one shot or fail to grab on to that one handhold, and it’s off into the void.

That sense of isolation is potent in Gravity. Several people are heard but Kowalski and Stone’s are the only faces seen. In a role that would have been ridiculous for anybody but Clooney, Kowalski’s chatty cheer and calming bonhomie works as a tonic on Stone’s panic just as it gives the audience a couple welcome gusts of laughter. The film’s mostly impressive technical credibility is stretched by the scenes early on where he’s whipping playfully around the shuttle just for fun. But Kowalski still carries the believable stamp of the right stuff; he’s the sardonic but capable astronaut we’d all like to be.

It’s also hard to see another actor pulling off Stone’s vulnerability with Bullock’s wounded intensity. Just as Clooney has cornered the market on twinkly-eyed professionals, Bullock has long specialized in tightly-wound perfectionists who balance between rigid control and storms of chaos. This really being her story, Gravity puts most of its weight on Bullock. For an actress usually forced into roles that call on her to act uptight for comic reasons, here she digs into that flintiness to locate a mournful loneliness that ends up being almost more memorable than the film’s vertiginous dramatics.

Stone’s physical isolation is mirrored by hints of near complete emotional isolation back on Earth. Not for nothing does one of the film’s most beautiful and Kubrickian shots show her removing her pressure suit and ever so slowly curling up into an almost fetal position. After the story’s exhausting round of complications and setbacks reaches a hope-is-lost pitch and the moment comes where Stone needs to decide whether to get busy living or dying, it’s actually not clear which direction she’ll choose. For her, burdened by tragic memories and without anybody to mourn her loss, the decision to simply turn down the oxygen and drift off to a sleepy death has a logic to it.

Due to Bullock’s wounded resilience, Gravity becomes an emotional gauntlet while remaining a nerve-fraying exercise in problem-solving. There are times when Cuaron’s plot resolutions can feel simplistic to the point of being trite. It’s a danger for any film like this that’s shorn of subplots, all but the most basic background, and most of a director’s toolbox of cheap tricks. With this kind of savage beauty on display, they would just get in the way.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.