Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity makes you realize just how few space movies are really about space. It’s not George Lucas’s job, or Gene Roddenberry’s, to educate the public about the actual science of space, but Cuarón was probably justified in having so little faith in the public’s knowledge about space that he begins Gravity with a few quick facts: space is extremely cold. You can’t breathe there. Sound doesn’t travel there. “Life is impossible.”
With that, Cuarón plunges us into the (fictional) story astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). It’s near the end of the Space Shuttle era, and crew members including Kowalski and Stone are on EVA (extra-vehicular activity) adding functionality to the Hubble Telescope when the Russians test a missile on one of their own satellites, unleashing a hail of orbiting debris that has the unintended but deadly effect of destroying everything in its path—thus creating more debris, and more destruction. When the debris field hits the shuttle, Kowalski and Stone are left trying to make their way back to Earth with the help of only their spacesuits and a single jetpack.
The beauty of this premise is its simplicity: there are no heroes, no villains, and in fact very few characters at all. It’s a straightforward survival story, though survival is no straightforward matter in the vacuum of space. The bare-bones story means that there are no distractions from Cuarón’s stunning portrayal of life in space.
You’ve seen plenty of “space movies,” but you’ve never seen anything like Gravity. Its two most obvious antecedents—besides survival stories like Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”—are Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. (In a nod to the latter, Ed Harris, who earned an Oscar nomination for his earthbound role in Apollo 13, is heard as a voice from Mission Control in Gravity.) Both films were superb, in very different ways, but Cuarón blows them both away in his visceral, vertiginous depiction of the astronauts’ experience.
It’s rare, in 2013, to see a movie and actually wonder how the hell they did that, but Gravity is so convincing that it’s hard to believe it was filmed on Earth. (It’s all the more impressive that the film’s budget was $80 million, bare-bones by today’s standards for mainstream FX-heavy films.) Cuarón makes brilliant use of both digital effects and 3D IMAX technology—I can’t think of another recent film more worth seeing in a setting with all the bells and whistles.
Though the characters’ survival struggle would be compelling enough, Gravity additionally fascinates with its up-close, believable depictions of the logistics of space travel. If you’ve ever sat down on a plane and nervously noted a loose tray table—shouldn’t a vehicle that’s taking you to vertiginous heights be better-maintained in all respects?—you’ll gulp as Kowalski and Stone try to seek refuge in the well-worn tin cans that still serve as space stations. I was reminded that near the end of the Shuttle program, NASA engineers were going on eBay to find rare replacement parts for the spaceships’ computers, which first saw action in the year that Ms. Pac-Man was released.
The sequence of events in Gravity strains credulity as close calls multiply and coincidences pile up, but we’re so enraptured by these characters leapfrogging through orbit that we don’t even care. Audiences will buy into any story if it’s told well, and Cuarón, who wrote the film with his son Jonás Cuarón, here proves himself a master storyteller: he’s been good before, but here he rivals Spielberg with his ability to integrate visual wonders and telling human details.
Perhaps the single most moving shot comes after Stone, on the brink of suffocation, fights her way into an airlock: shedding her suit, she breathes deeply and simply floats. It’s a shot of Kubrick-ian grace, but with a tremendously affecting sense of human warmth. Bullock has never been better (or, it must be said, looked hotter) than in Gravity. Cuarón daringly presents her as a character with no immediate family, which blocks him from going for cheap emotion by showing a nervous child or husband waiting back home. Stone must find the will to live solely within herself, giving her struggle the kind of existential edge we rarely see from a picture like this.
Gravity is an instant classic—not just of science fiction, but of adventure and psychological thrill. Believe the hype, and see it now.