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.