“Gravity” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Sundance. PG-13, 1:31, four stars out of four.
Below, the Earth slowly turns, lovely and unreachable. Above, an inky void of nothingness beckons. For 90 minutes Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” suspends its characters between the two, building unbearable tension in a tale of survival at 366,000 feet.
There are quibbles to be made about some of the more pedestrian aspects of “Gravity” — the characters are a little simply drawn, the dialogue sometimes too on the nose. But as an experience of pure cinema, an appreciation of its ability to show terrible and wonderful things, I can’t think of its equal in 2013.
In one 12-minute opening shot, Cuaron sets the stage. The crew of the shuttle Explorer are busy making repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope, and the action focuses on two members. Matt (George Clooney) is a cocky veteran on his last space mission, Ryan (Sandra Bullock) is a nervous newcomer on her first. All seems routine until Mission Control (a familiar voice I won’t reveal) warns them that a Russian satellite has been destroyed, and the shrapnel is taking out other satellites and heading their way. They hustle back to the Explorer, but they’re too late — the debris shreds the Hubble and the Explorer, leaving Matt and Ryan adrift as the only two survivors.
Again, this is the first shot.
From there, “Gravity” is a white-knuckler, an elemental tale of survival in the vein of “127 Hours” or the upcoming “All Is Lost.” Man against the elements, only in an environment where none of the elements are remotely hospitable to man. Ryan and Matt assess, make plans, endure, adapt, falter, keep going. At times the screen is filled with chaos, metal ripping apart and astronauts getting thrown around like rag dolls. But these moments alternate with scenes of eerie stillness, almost like a silent movie, the characters floating in space, utterly alone.
Cuaron never breaks the illusion that he’s filming in space, the camera seeming to float and spin along with them. Sometimes an astronaut is just a tiny blip rotating against a black emptiness, other times the camera pulls in so close that we go inside Ryan’s visor, hearing her labored breathing, peering out through the fogged-up viewscreen as she tries to orient herself.
It’s a monumental achievement in filmmaking, with images that are impossibly stunning. Get yourself to the largest screen with the best sound system you can find, and spring for the 3D upcharge. Cuaron uses 3D in a way that’s amazing and nearly essential to the experience, objects floating and spinning in zero gravity, some benign like pens and fat tear droplets, some dangerous like metal shards and globules of fire.
Clooney’s character has one too many layers of space-cowboy arrogance, and he can’t quite sell Matt as a real person, and not a screenwriter’s notion of what a hotshot astronaut is like. Cuaron wrote the screenplay with his eldest son, which may not be the most rigorous screenwriting process.
But that’s okay, because the film’s real focus is squarely on Ryan. A mother still grieving the senseless death of her four-year-old daughter, her struggle to survive mirrors her grieving process. That may sound a little too neat thematically, but it’s a powerful undercurrent. And Bullock is excellent, showing us her panic and despair hardening into resolve — and doing so, mind you, while spinning ass-over-teakettle in zero Gs.
There’s a beautiful shot of Bullock floating in an airlock, legs curled up in a fetal position, the wires and hoses around her looking like umbilical cords. “Gravity” is a relentlessly thrilling tale of survival, but it’s also a story of rebirth for Ryan (the last shot drives that point home unmistakably). It’s that emotional journey that stays with you, after your hands stop trembling.