What Alfonso Cuarón, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney pull off with the film Gravity is nearly miraculous. It’s astonishingly accurate in its depiction of being in outer space, as we experience its dangerous but beautiful aspects.
Director Alfonso Cuarón triumphantly filmed this unforgettable movie experience starting with the very first shot. It’s one of his signature minutes-long takes that begins with the majestic vista of the Earth seen from orbit as a space shuttle slowly appears, seemingly out of nowhere. The spacecraft gradually fills the screen as we are introduced to Gravity’s main characters. Darting around the shuttle are Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a rookie astronaut, who is repairing the Hubble telescope that is docked to the shuttle’s main bay. Darting around her and the ship, almost playfully, is retiring veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who still can’t get enough of the space experience. Stone, on the other hand, seems unimpressed with the magnitude of where she is and is somewhat withdrawn. Later in the film, we learn why.
Before Gravity can turn into another one of those pleasantly relaxing IMAX films about space travel, the astronauts are abruptly warned about an approaching debris field from a destroyed satellite. Then the chilling terror begins as metal debris showers the shuttle. The astronauts are thrown about like rag dolls and the shuttle is damaged beyond use. These pulse-pounding scenes create a sense of terror since we see early on how fragile our heroes are and realize the enormity of their life-and-death situation. Despite the turmoil, Kowalski stays cool and collected, while Stone, like most of us, is in panic mode and for good reason. Somehow, she has to fight her terror and find a way to safely return to Earth.
Bullock gives one of her very best performances in this film. Through minimal dialogue and tension-filled sequences we feel an empathy for her. Stone is a rather nuanced person; when we first meet her she is passive and gives in to her feelings of helplessness. She almost seems innocent, and the moments when she is floating in a space station curled up like an infant drive this point home. But by the end of the film, she undergoes a rebirth of sorts as an intense, spiritual metamorphosis takes place. Stone develops an inner, steely resolve. She becomes a fighter, not in the screaming warrior sense, but as someone who can think clearly during a crisis, while displaying a indomitable fighting spirit.
The director uses a minimalist approach to express these themes. There aren’t any great mysteries or philosophical questions to ponder. It’s a movie about survival and finding that inner strength that most of us have to fight against the odds. In this case, Stone has to find a way to return to Earth despite overwhelming odds and her tenuous circumstances. That’s what is so inspiring about Gravity.
Alfonso Cuarón demonstrates why he is a filmmaker to be revered. His work drew me into the film and made me feel like I was there. There are so many little touches that sell the impression that the characters are in space. Things like the lack of sound, except what is heard inside the spacesuits, and the cramped interiors of the I.S.S. with all the floating objects. It’s so realistically rendered that a part of me wondered at times how he filmed all those scenes of weightlessness. It seems like Cuarón took a camera up to the I.S.S. and filmed segments in zero gravity. It’s needless to say that the special effects and cinematography are beyond flawless.
Are there flaws with Gravity? Of course, there are. But so does Star Wars, Avatar, 2001: A Space Odyssey and other groundbreaking movies. Without going into details, let’s just say that a careful observer can spot when dramatic licenses were taken during pivotal moments. But that’s just nitpicking, and such instances don’t approach the level of inaccuracies and plot flaws seen in other recent blockbuster films. Without sounding too hyperbolic, Gravity is a game changer. We see the majestic wonder of observing the Earth from above, but are made too aware of how precarious life is outside of the world’s protective influence. However, its core message was about the resiliency of the human spirit and the fragile but beauteous nature of life. That along with breathtaking visuals, auteur direction and bravura performances, is why Gravity won’t let you go long after seeing it.