You don’t have to be an astronaut to know that the universe is vast and beautiful, but also merciless and fraught with peril. In space, the silence is deafening and the boundlessness is claustrophobic. You get a sense of that when you scuba dive or go for a swim in the middle of the night. For a more visceral outer-space experience, however, you are well served to head to an IMAX screen near you and let Gravity take you through a thrill ride like no other space film has done before. Mexican film director Alfonso Cuarón warmed up to the international audience with his provocative coming-of-age drama Y Tu Mamá También and the more recent Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, widely considered the best installment in the franchise.
Gravity now adds to a stellar and very bankable filmography. The sci-fi thriller has already shattered Hollywood records by being the biggest October opening ever. It appears that good things do come in small packages. The movie is only 90-minute long, which almost makes it a short film by today's standards. The story is as simple as the cast is small: biomedical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are sole survivors of a routine space mission after debris from a Russian satellite destroys their spacecraft. Gravity is not your average survival movie. Sure there is the daisy chain of Murphy’s Law scenarios: if it isn’t a hailstorm of satellite shrapnel, it’s a raging fire inside a spacecraft. But none of that feels contrived or forced. Cuarón wisely avoids clichés and over-sentimentality.
There are no predictable scenes of worried operators in a NASA control room or maudlin flashbacks to the characters' happy pasts. More importantly, there is no rah-rah Americanism or heavy religious overtones. Instead, the film is a fluid space ballet that is as poetic as it is perilous. One of my favorite scenes involves Dr. Stone curling up inside a space module in a fetal position with the tethers resembling an umbilical cord, a symbol to foreshadow a spiritual rebirth to come. Hats off to Sandra Bullock for a nuanced portrayal of an outer space damsel in distress who must overcome not only the challenges at hand, but also demons from her past that continue to haunt her no matter how great her professional accomplishments are.
She carries the entire movie from start to finish, tumbling, hurtling, colliding and hyperventilating from one setpiece to another. It is reported that Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard and Natalie Portman all tried out for the film. Now that we have seen Bullock playing the lead role, we can’t imagine anyone else doing it. Gravity is an unqualified success. There is no fat to trim and no plot hole to nitpick. I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat simultaneously fearing for Dr. Stone’s life and wondering how Cuarón could make it all look so believable. The clever interplay between silence and noise, weightlessness and mass, space and claustrophobia works impeccably well. The movie is at once terrifying, moving, inspiring, nail-biting and visually stunning. It is pure cinema.