4.5 / 5 stars
In the first week or so that Gravity took over U.S. movie screens, an unusually broad range of moviegoers and critics compared Alfonso Cuarón’s space survival tale to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It sounded like an incredibly lazy assessment. Aligning two films that convey the feeling of traveling beyond the atmosphere is painfully obvious, like saying “If you loved The Hangover Part II, you’ll love The Hangover Part III!” But, even considering the cultural and technical masterpiece that is 2001, the comparison is fair because it goes beyond visual prowess. Like Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, Cuarón (with son Jonás) consider the most enormous elements of existence: Space, land, sea. Life, death, evolution. Technology, humanity, destruction. All within a conventional structure that lacks conceit, and is constantly riveting. (Click on the movie posters for a closer look.)
Cuarón’s two-character play is really a classic adventure disguised as moderately intellectual science fiction. The duo (played by mega-watt stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) move from point to point, desperately attempting to fend off danger and stay alive. They’re the survivors of a freak space mission mishap — he’s a veteran astronaut, she’s an astro-newbie — combating the physical limitations of space to somehow make their way home.
As a director, Cuarón employs a scintillating portfolio of cinematic trickery, all focused on keeping us effectively trapped in the illusion. Emmanuel Lubezki, a five-time Oscar nominee and Cuarón cinematographer on Children of Men, will gracefully shoot a space-set conversation between characters, sweep wide to capture oncoming trouble (or the illusion of it) and then move inside the face mask of Bullock’s helmet, one seemingly continuous shot that brings reality (and, yes, gravity) to a movie that’s practically living on its special effects.
But the overall result is just about breathtaking. As a complement, Cuarón uses overwhelming contrasts in sound, not only to press all the right high-tension buttons, but also to share changes in pressure, both mental and physical, that Bullock’s character endures. Bullock helps the cause with great adaptability: When constrained by a space suit, she uses her eyes, her voice, her breathing. When she’s freed and safe, her body expresses a balletic gratitude that gives the film its real human beauty. Cuaron gives Bullock plenty of room, and I would bet these are some of the longest takes in Bullock’s generally commercial-heavy career.
Her counterpart is no slouch, and Cuarón knows just how to use him. Clooney plays the wisecracking elder statesman, a guy who’s competitive and confident, but mocking of his reputation as a good-looking charmer. The self-awareness adds a reliable levity to some of the gravity (sorry), and if Clooney decided to stop acting tomorrow, his role here would have made a hell of an appropriate swan song.
As our heroes descend into a figurative funnel of fewer and fewer options, they become more symbolic than one might expect, allowing Cuarón to rely on some simplified plot points without sacrificing his story’s maturity. And with his players, he creates moments that link the entirety of life: the fluid from which we’ve emerged, the heights to which we’ve soared, the stories we’ve lived to tell. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is that it invites viewer interpretation, a rare element in such a commercially embraceable film. I’m thinking Kubrick may have appreciated that.