Given how much praise critics heaped on Alfonso Cuarón for the seemingly gravity-defying feats of camerawork showcased in Children of Men, perhaps we should have anticipated that his long-gestating follow-up would take place almost wholly in outer space. Why merely defy gravity when you can dispense with it entirely? (And further: what are the narrative implications of sending something "up" only to find that up and down don’t even exist anymore?) Thus, Gravity is a film defined by the absence of the titular force and the havoc this plays on NASA Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (a quite terrific, and ripped, Sandra Bullock) when her routine mission to perform a simple upgrade on the Hubble telescope is wrecked by a blizzard of deadly space debris.
After a set of ominous and punchy opening titles (one notes that space does not transmit sound which, along with providing a helpful warning for those who might be confused when the loud crashes and booms common in space epics don’t appear, brings to mind that infamous Alien tag; though in Cuarón’s vision, the enemy is even more implacable and nearly all we hear are the sounds of the female protagonist’s distress) we’re left to bliss-out while drifting silently over the surface of the far-off Earth. It’s quite some time before Cuarón even deigns to direct our attention to the movie that’s about to happen; he's content to let us awe at a view of Earth most of us will never witness firsthand until we can gradually make out the quiet crackle of voices chattering on a distant radio frequency as a space shuttle slides languorously into view at the frame’s bottom right. The camera moves closer to reveal three astronauts at work: Stone, gruff Mission Commander Mike Kowalski (George Clooney, bearing the most perfectly cliche name yet applied to a movie astronaut) cracking wise and waxing nostalgic about this, his last space walk, suggesting he’s not too terribly long for the film, and ebullient Shariff (Paul Sharma), whose boundless joy over his weightless state can only mean the movie will obliterate him in short order as well.
The trio’s introduction is carried off via the continuance of the same shot that began minutes prior drowsing lazily in orbit. Perked to attention by the shuttle activity, Cuarón now directs his camera to zip and dive and roll in and amongst the astronauts at work, constantly shifting vantage point and giving the viewer the sense of dozens of shots, even though those paying attention will recognize the extreme care exercised in making this maneuver read like one fluid, realistic take. It’s in this seamlessness that Gravity provides something new to cinema: a true unfettered motion whose closest equal is to be found only in the more raucous motion-captured chases of Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. And in the opening shot’s small details—a recently freed bolt making a run for open space, an astronaut whipping himself on his tether like a bungee, the way in which the lack of gravity makes any movement through open space a fraught, best-guess hold-on-tight situation—we can locate the most careful attempt at visually representing space physics since perhaps 2001. Even if there are scientific holes to be poked in the fabric of Gravity aplenty, there's a good deal of detail work to appreciate.
The astronauts' balletic peace is shredded when shrapnel from an exploded satellite hurtles into their shuttle catapulting Stone off into deep space alone without a tether, jetpack or any ability to stop her forward motion and constant spin. The rest of Gravity, which utilizes as much real-time keeping as it can, details her attempts to get back to Earth before the deadly metal storm rounds the planet for a second strike. Along the way, we are afforded the opportunity to witness in great and wondrous detail the silent death throes of the International Space Station, which, when Earthbound, surely possessed the heft and solidity of a Russian tank, but in space rips apart as easily and beautifully as if it had been spun from fine gossamer. We are given ample opportunity to marvel at more of Cuarón's complicated choreography, and at how he somehow manages to work his way from vast space vistas into so many dramatic close-ups of human faces. We are also, somewhat less wondrously, given the chance to learn something of the inner life of Ryan Stone, not just an astronaut on her first space walk, but also a bereaved mother—her four-year old daughter was recently laid low by a simple brush with gravity (“she fell and hit her head, and it was over”) and her life has been on hold since that tragic date. Literally freed from gravity and unable to cling to the comfortable inertia that the vacuum won’t allow, her struggle for survival is overlaid and intermingled with the overcoming of this tragedy, providing the viewer desiring a lean B-movie actioner a plodding and unnecessary existential crisis. Why haven’t screenwriters tackling these types of tales yet recognized that the human need to simply not die is about as unerring and universal as drives get?
Sadly, like Joe Carnahan’s similarly dire and survival-minded The Grey, Gravity is one of those films that decided its central conceit wasn’t legible enough emblazoned in all caps on its sleeve, so opted instead for a forehead tattoo and matching sandwich board. Cuarón hasn’t been shy about his grander intentions during interviews, which is, arguably, admirable—at least this is the movie he meant to make. Gravity’s combination of technical virtuosity and baldly stated big themes will surely, as one clever twitterer noted after its Toronto Film Festival premiere, make it a perennial favorite of the slavering hordes who determine imdb.com all-time film rankings, but this in itself doesn’t mean it should be wholly discounted. Those portions of Gravity that buckle down to focus on the physics of bodies drifting dangerously in space uncover a kind of slow motion tension that crosses the cringe of a horror film immediately pre-scare and the exhilarating mid-crash moment of a great movie car chase. Similarly, the film has opened up new possibilities for cinematic range of motion, even if I haven’t a clue to what other uses Cuarón’s technology could be gainfully employed (let’s hope for better than a swooping, vertiginous Adam Sandler comedy, Jennifer Aniston romance or D-Day picture). Gravity is very often a great watch; too bad it offers so little of value to chew on afterwards.