Alfonso Cuarons GRAVITY is a masterpiece of both action and psychology. It is a film that sends its audience home with many things to ponder, and many lessons learned. It also sends that audience home with a whole new appreciation of air, and Im not sure thats an accident. So abundant here on the surface of our Big Blue Marble, and so taken for granted. In space, where GRAVITY is set, nothing is taken for granted, and the perfect beauty and indifference of that environment is as potent a villain as ever threatened a protagonist.
This protagonist is Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a doctor whose invention has applications beyond the hospital where she plies her trade. After six months of training, she is installing it on the Hubble Space Telescope under the watchful eye of veteran astronaut and space shuttle commander Matthew Kowalski (George Clooney). Stone is fighting motion-sickness. Kowalski is playing with the new jet pack that allows him to zip around space without a tether, and relishing his last space flight. In short order, a freak accident sends debris whipping through space at them at 50,000 mph, leaving them stranded when the shuttle is destroyed. Tethered together, and floating 600 kilometers above the Earth, they are forced to devise a method of returning safely to the ground as their options become increasingly fewer in number.
Cuaron tells the story from Stone’s point of view, barely gives us time to catch our breath as Stone faces one complication after another, and her will to live is pitted against her inexperience with space. In stunning succession, chance throws new situations at her that require clear-thinking, creativity, and an all-but impossible faith that there is always a solution that will eventually get her home. The camera shifts from Stone spinning helplessly against the star-scattered blackness of space, to the view from inside her helmet, as she loses her bearings as her oxygen runs low, or pulls away as, given another catastrophe to deal with, Stone begins to scream. Bullock, even given the limitations of a performance that is limited to her face and gestures with the bulk spacesuit, nonetheless is raw, vulnerable, ferocious, and as courageous as the character she plays. The voice becomes a superb instrument of finely shaded emotion, her breathing a method of expression that conveys with riveting immediacy the fear of death, as well as the rapture Stone has in being able to fill her lungs to capacity. In every moment of Stone’s ordeal, Bullock is creating a foundation for her metamorphosis into a hero of mythic proportions, not because she is superhuman, but because she eventually refuses to stop trying.
In perfect counterpoint to the tension of the action, is the ever-present image of the Earth, filling the screen, reflected in windows and helmets that juxtapose that image with Stone’s face looking towards it with a longing too overwhelming for words. It is a vision of wonder that Cuaron emphasizes in even the most dire of moments, with the aurora borealis shimmering with a preternatural glow while above it a tine figure desperately tries to find safe haven in the infinity of space.
Stone’s journey in GRAVITY, and lets take a moment to acknowledge the allegorical implications of her name, is about more than survival. Its about learning how to live again, even if it’s for the few minutes she can eke out of her next desperate move. Cuaron has created a work of art that despite its trappings of special effects and camera wizardry is always at its most engrossing, its most emotionally involving, because of the human drama at work inside Stone. Stunning on every level, it’s a film to be savored on the big screen, where the proportions can sink in, and where that 3D magic presents an intimation of infinity.