Sandra Bullock's captivating performance matches spectacular space vision
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
Stars: 4 out of 4
"Gravity" is astonishing. It's a mind-blowing, out-of-this-world survival story helmed by the steady, confident hand of director Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men"), among the boldest and most innovative visionaries working today. This is filmmaking at its highest level.
Set almost entirely in outer space, the drama features George Clooney as experienced astronaut Matt Kowalsky. He's thoroughly competent at his job and an ideal mentor to Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer with limited outer space experience. While outside their vessel making repairs, debris from an exploding satellite severs the astronauts' communication with Houston (it's Ed Harris' voice we hear coming from NASA — who else?), leaving them without a space ship. Tethered together and floating 375 miles above a stark blue Earth far below, they must work together to survive in the most unsuitable environment imaginable for human beings.
Though the story, written by Cuaron and his son Jonas, is simple, the marvelous visuals are not. The outer-space setting — whether the characters are floating in space or inside a ship — is ominous and foreboding, far from anything suggesting user-friendly warmth. This is especially relevant to Stone, who's not familiar enough with NASA technology to survive on her own.
Cuaron and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki spent more than four years on the project, literally inventing the technology needed to film Bullock and Clooney in outer space. Here's how they did it: A 9-foot-by-9-foot cube was built, and the actors were placed in the center, on a rig that could balance in different positions. On the walls of the cube were LED screens that projected what the character would be seeing during a given moment, and the actors would react to the projections, with the background behind them to be added in post-production. They wouldn't spin around too often, for which they're surely grateful; multiple cameras captured the action as Cuaron envisioned in pre-production.
The opening shot alone is enough to take your breath away. A jaw-dropping, unbroken 13-minute take introduces us to the characters and the debris that nearly kills them. Simply put, this type of visual showmanship is remarkable, the result of painstakingly exact execution and planning by Cuaron and his production team. Combine that with sound that goes from pulsing action to eerie silence, and a production design that even real astronauts are saying is "spectacularly good," and you have a movie that hits every note to which it aspires.
Like Tom Hanks in "Cast Away" and Will Smith in "I Am Legend," Bullock is up to the task of carrying the majority of the film on her own. Her presence and the briskly moving story (the film is 91 minutes) keep us engaged throughout, in part because her character's journey is so captivating and we're rooting so hard for her to survive. As an aside, give credit to Cuaron and Warner Bros. for casting her: Most astronauts are men, and the role could've easily been played by a male, but having a female in space might serve as a positive role model for young women.
It's hyperbole, but in this case it really is true: Sometimes the stars align, technological capability meets imagination, and we get something we've truly never seen before. "Gravity" is an example of this cliché come true, and it's one of the best films of the year.