Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, steps away from the Star Trek / Star Wars type outer space film we’ve become used to, with their aliens and energy weapons and so forth, and goes back to the simplicity of human beings experiencing outer space. The breathtaking beauty of the film is combined with an eerie sense of desolation, the fear of dying out there and never coming back to earth.
The story, written by Cuaron with his son Jonas, concerns a space shuttle team assigned to repair the Hubble telescope. In the midst of their space walk, an explosion of a nearby Russian satellite sends debris hurtling their way that ends up killing everyone except the mission commander, Kowalski, played by George Clooney, and a rookie astronaut played by Sandra Bullock, both of whom are floating in space with their oxygen running out. The film chronicles their agonizing attempts to find a way back to Earth.
It’s important to understand that what you have with Gravity is not the kind of realistic portrayal of space travel that you saw in Apollo 13, for instance, but a science fiction film that deftly hides its improbable, and sometimes frankly impossible, elements within the structure of constant suspense and high adrenaline, along with the overall mood of awe and fear. Cuaron’s goal is to evoke the extreme feelings of someone struggling to survive in the most incredibly lonely circumstances—in this case it’s Sandra Bullock, the main character, who stands in for our own imagining of how vulnerable we would feel—and the internal journey that it takes us through. Plotwise, it’s like a Jack London story, except in space, but if you want realism, and it’s ok if you do, you should go elsewhere. That being said, the only other weakness I should mention is Clooney’s character, a bit too glib and wryly humorous for my taste—in fact, the best moments happen in this film without much talking, and thankfully there isn’t much.
The mind-blowing cinematography is by Emmanuel Lubezki, who has worked with Cuaron before—and also famously with Terrence Mallick—and the same kind of all-enveloping spatial sense that you find in Mallick is here. I saw it in 3-D, and for once I liked that format, although I think the picture would be gorgeous in 2-D as well. Most of all I appreciate the sense of beauty that Cuaron and his entire team brings to the picture, deeper than the usual “Oh look at that special effect” surface beauty that has become so tiresome. The images breathe here, and they reflect the silence, the weightlessness, the aloneness of space so well that I was grateful later to feel my feet touch the ground.