Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity can be seen in many ways. Just from a Christian sensibility, it could be taken as either a resurrection story or an expulsion from Eden tale. It could be a tale of birth or rebirth. Or, it could simply be a shipwreck tale. On every level, however you view it, it is a brilliant film by a man whose last three movies – Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men – have been masterpieces.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is introducing a new, specific technology, into the systems of the Hubble telescope. It’s her first space mission and she’s having problems. Apparently, keeping one’s lunch down in zero gravity is not the easiest thing in the world. While she’s working on adding her new tech to the Hubble, Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is taking his last spacewalk before retirement. Another member of the Explorer crew also has a task which, upon completion, gives him cause for sufficient joy to produce a physical maneuver that Kowalski describes as ‘I’m guessing the Macarena. That’s a worst case scenario.’
After about twelve minutes of exquisite beauty – and a steady patter of wisecracks from Kowalski (riffing on Han Solo; spinning anecdotes) – Mission Control, Houston (voiced by Ed Harris) announces a problem. A Russian missile has destroyed a Russian satellite and the debris has wrought destruction in an ever increasing cascade and Explorer has to get out of there. They don’t make it – leaving Stone and Kowalski as the mission’s only survivors and having to get to a Chinese space station to find an escape pod to get home.
Gravity is an exquisitely beautiful film. Cuarón focuses on the characters and their struggle to survive, but the environment in which they struggle is the most unforgiving there is. Outside of minimal sets – mostly space station and escape pod interiors – the entire environment is CGI and it is almost indescribably beautiful. Also, according to someone who would know, Buzz Aldrin, extremely accurate.
While Stone spins out of control, it’s the veteran Kowalski and his maintaining that calm, wisecracking demeanor that keeps her from giving up. When the point-of-view shifts to her, Gravity is terrifying.
Bullock has been great in other roles, but even her Oscar®-winning performance pales into insignificance next to what she does with Stone. Coaxed and goaded by Clooney’s matter-of-factly wonderful underplaying of Kowalski, she gets to be as big and dramatic as you can get; just as subtle and still, and hit every shading in between.
Cuarón, working from a script he co-wrote (with son Jonás), sets the stage with enough of a look at who these people are in terms of their personalities and experience that, when the film shifts into high gear, we care deeply about them. And when the action gets hairy, we’re riveted to the screen, teetering on the edge of our seats.
There is an infinite depth to space and it is communicated beautifully through the use of 3D. Cuarón never overdoes it – there are moments when debris comes at us, but we always see it from the points-of-view of the characters thereby heightening our sense of their peril. Not one frame is gratuitous.
I’ll leave to you to decide which of the several metaphors that can be communicated through the story are relevant. The fact that there are so many possibilities is exquisite.
On the most basic level – that of shipwreck survivors trying to get home – Gravity is enthralling. Everything else is gravy – or philosophy except for this – Alfonso Cuarón is one of the great directors of our time.
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Photos courtesy of Warner Brothers