None of the many compelling visual elements of the new science-fiction thriller Gravity can match what is felt and not actually seen on screen. Director Alfonso Cuaron has delivered a work that, while paying homage to past classics of the outer-space genre, also creates fresh twists and memorable images.
In his first film since the nightmarish 2006 Children of Men, Cuaron shows that he has been spending his time piecing together this intricate work that renders an on-screen world of wonder. But Cuaron leaves out many of the genre’s cliches, instead creating a vast world that conveys the until-now inexplicable despair wrought by hopeless isolation.
All succeeding space films owe a debt to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Since then, special effects and computer-generated imaging have only slightly improved the overall look, leaving filmmakers like Cuaron a challenge to create new visions. Gravity becomes one of the few, if only, films to make a viewer understand what it feels like to actually be in space, and to be lost in space.
In Gravity, the challenge falls to Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), who find themselves outside a space station when debris from a missile strike knocks them from their couplings. These detachments set up the early part of the film, all set outside in the deep universal expanses, a void Cuaron uses to establish an eerie sense of emptiness.
The trip turns into one of survival and return, as Stone fights to access the zero-gravity compartment of a Russian space station, and then, later, a Chinese station. Kowalsky does not disappear entirely, but it becomes Stone’s story, and movie, as she displays her true grit as evinced by the script from Cuaron and his son, Jonas.
Despite a cast headed by two A-listers, Cuaron serves as the de facto star of Gravity, as he is the one who has arranged what is seen on screen, with help from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his army of special effects technicians. As such, during the first half, the actors reside inside their space suits, making them as anonymous as John Hurt in The Elephant Man.
Only when Stone finds her inner Sigourney Weaver from Alien, stripping down to her Ridley-inspired underwear, does she become a real human. And only then does she succeed in persuading us of her daunting challenge in the face of oblivion.
Rated PG-13, 90 minutes.