Sandra in Space

(USA/UK, 93 min.)
Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, Writ. Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Every little kid dreamed of going to space. We’ve all been Jodie Foster in Contact at some point or another. Jodie got to go there (depending on how one interprets the static), but the final frontier of space is just something one gets to stare at with wonder when positioned at an adequate distance from the light pollution of the city.

Any dreams of going to space, though, can finally be realized with the awesome and groundbreaking visuals of Gravity. Director Alfonso Cuarón takes the audience as close to space as they’ll ever get with this tour de force 3-D VFX extravaganza. Gravity is the world of cinema like one has never seen it before.

Life doesn’t exist in space, as the opening title cards of Gravity ominously note before Cuarón invites the audience to blast off with one of the most spectacular opening sequences ever shot with a camera. Gravity begins with one of the director’s signature long takes. Lasting for well over fifteen minutes—audiences will be too enrapt to check their watches—the opening shot of Gravity dances around a spaceship as two astronauts, Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), perform some repair work on a space station hundreds of kilometers above Earth. As the camera, manoeuvered with balletic grace by DP Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The Tree of Life), whirls around the astronauts, Gravity presents a panoramic 360° view of both the beauty and horror of outer space.

The view of Earth is lovely, as Matt notes in his droll, calming camaraderie, but it must put one on edge to be so exposed and vulnerable. George Clooney is endlessly charming, even in space, in this role that caters perfectly to his sweet-talking charisma. Matt’s smooth, soothing calmness is necessary, since the minutiae of space ensure that his team feels as safe as they possibly can. Ryan, a rookie to Matt’s veteran, is clearly scared stiff by the abyss that engulfs her.

Matt and Ryan are then assaulted by a storm of debris. Gravity in turn spirals the audience into a dizzying frenzy as the camera seamlessly assumes the perspective of space from inside Ryan’s helmet as the dream of space goes sour in a jaw-droppingly orchestrated assault that outmatches any attack launched in space by Darth Vader. The opening scene of Gravity makes the car chase centrepiece of Cuarón’s Children of Men look like child’s play.

The ensuing tightrope act of survival is an equally breathless odyssey. It’s odd to call Gravity breathless since Bullock’s measured breathing and frantic panting perform double duty as the film’s dialogue. Each breath brings her closer to death as her oxygen supply dwindles. Uttering few words, Gravity conveys Ryan’s emotional journey as she floats through a kind of purgatory to come up for air.

Bullock gives a compelling physical performance in Gravity. The performance is arguably among the best work of Bullock's career, but it’s a tricky turn to assess. The script essentially uses Ryan as a marionette that Cuarón dangles around a set and green screen for much of the film’s 93 minutes. Much of Bullock’s most emotive work also comes partially reflected or obscured through glass while much else in the film shows only a floating body matched with the mortal sound of Ryan’s gasping breaths. It’s an impressive feat of acrobatics, though, to complement the visual dazzle of the post-production spectacle, but the role doesn’t offer the same range of depth as it does Cirque du Soleil-ish physical feats.

Oddly enough, Gravity only feels strained when it grabs a hold on Ryan and moves the story into a more intimate space. Perhaps it’s inevitable that a film with such an awesome opening movement plays like a decrescendo, although the music by Steven Price and Cuarón’s intermediate cliffhangers ensure that Gravity never deflates. As Gravity moves towards its resolution, though, Cuarón’s symbolism becomes rather heavy-handed as the horror of Gravity becomes a metaphor for a woman who was lost in a drift following the death of her child. Ryan immediately assumes the fetal position when safety feels nigh and the final act of the film unfurls as a kind of rebirth until she can take her first step in a new life. The subtext of Gravity is obvious, but it’s something so precise and clear that any viewer can grasp and appreciate.

Gravity, however much it leaves one wishing that Ryan’s interstellar gestation would strive for higher meaning, is a true marvel as a feat of epic escapism. No film set in outer space has ever used the visual elements of cinema to realize fully humankind’s minuscule insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe. Gravity is mostly soundless aside from Ryan’s fearful breaths, Matt’s boyish monologues, and Price’s bombastic score, and the result is a suspenseful one-upping of Alien’s ad line, “In space no one can hear you scream....” Cuarón finds a realistic accomplishment by making the aural and visual boundaries of space—or lack thereof—the film’s true antagonist.

Gravity, through its sweeping and grandiose manoeuvrings of camerawork and digital pizzazz, creates an all-encompassing universe that viewers have never seen before. The literal elements of pure space, the voids without the manmade junk, each inject a terrifying sense of the unknown into the film. Cuarón has managed to turn each cube of space into something both beautiful and threatening. 

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Gravity opens in wide release Friday, October 4.
(Note: this film is worth seeing in 3-D.)