Is Gravity the smallest big movie in recent memory? Or the biggest small movie? One can make the case for either, but regardless, director Alfonso Cuaron's latest film--his first since the remarkable Children of Men in 2006--is a fascinating experiment in hybrid filmmaking, an awesome display of cutting-edge special effects deployed in the service of a compact character drama.
The movie opens with a shot that plays like a deep-space variation on Sherif Ali's iconic entrance in Lawrence of Arabia: in place of the shimmering sands of Al Madinah, we have a supernal slice of blue-white Planet Earth; in place of the speck gliding above it that expands into a camel, we have one that instead gradually reveals itself to be a space shuttle; and there, clinging to its back as it approaches, not Omar Sharif, but Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
Bullock and Clooney play, respectively, Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer and rookie astronaut, and Matt Kowalski, a yarn-spinning space veteran on his final mission. The two have undertaken a routine spacewalk to tinker with the Hubble Telescope--along with a colleague who, ahem, will not figure prominently in the remainder of the film--but they are soon interrupted. The detonation of a Russian satellite hundreds of miles away has led to a chain reaction of collisions, and a massive debris field is now hurtling toward the shuttle. It is this host of inadvertent projectiles, rather than "gravity" in the most direct sense, that serves as the primary antagonist of Cuaron's film, though one can see how he found the latter to be a more elegant title than Flying Space Junk.
The opening sequence (like many that follow) is a stunning display of pure cinema. Unable to disengage from the cargo bay's arm, Ryan pinwheels helplessly around the shuttle as the tsunami of orbital flotsam twirls it on its axis like the S.S. Poseidon on speed. That is, until she's freed from the arm and hurled out into the silent void itself. As they say, out of the frying pan...
I won't reveal the details of what follows, and shame on anyone who does. Suffice it to say that Ryan and Matt try, with intermittent success, to find their way to safety--the shuttle, a neighboring space station, any port in a storm--and from there, back to Earth. The journey home, moreover, is not merely physical but spiritual as well.
I would love to be able to convey the visual spectacularity of Cuaron's film, but I fear it might be described more easily in mathematical equations (featuring vectors, force, acceleration, and so on) than in customary prose. Unfolding as a series of terrifying object lessons in Newtonian physics, the movie lends new meaning to the phrase "spatial geometry." The cinematography, by usual Cuaron collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, alternates between the harrowing and the sublime, with vertiginous sequences that settle unexpectedly into intimate closeups. Gravity is the genuinely rare film--the last, to my mind, was Titanic--featuring special effects that are at once so novel, so technologically ahead-of-the-curve, and so essential to the underlying narrative. As George Clooney has noted, accurately if perhaps immodestly, Gravity is "an argument for 3D." It is a movie that demands to be seen in the theater, and on the largest screen available.
Yet for all its visual extravagance, Gravity is also, in significant ways, one of the smallest Hollywood films of the year. Its cast essentially consists of just two actors (plus, in a nice touch, Ed Harris as the voice of Mission Control), and its running time, at 90 minutes, seems almost too succinct to be true. (Take that, Peter Jackson!) The story, too, is propelled by the simplest, and most universal, of human motivations: the quest for survival in an uncaring cosmos.
Bullock contributes arguably the best work of her career in the film, and while Clooney may coast a little on his limitless charm, it seems oddly apt for him to do so: Coasting is, after all, a principal reality of life in space. If there is a disappointment to be found in Gravity--and alas, there is--it is with the screenplay, which Cuaron co-wrote with his son Jonas. In contrast to the movie's magisterial visuals, the writing is often pinched and conventional: an overwrought, unnecessary backstory; a clumsily executed hinge in the plot; dialogue that bristles with hoary cliché. These narrative missteps are all the more disappointing because they would have been so easy to correct: Gravity is not a film that needed to shine in conversation, merely one that should have avoided moments clunky enough to wrest us from our immersion, to remind us that, yes, we really are in a movie theater rather than 600,000 feet above Earth. Early in the film, when Matt asks Ryan what she likes best about their space walk, she replies, "the silence." The Cuarons would have been wise to supply a bit more of it.
Frustrating as this flaw may be, however, it is one that is easy to forgive in light of the genuine wonders the film provides. Gravity may get some of the small things wrong, but it gets the big ones dazzlingly, unforgettably right.