There are few movies that genuinely deserve to be described as breathtaking, and in the future I suspect that the word will apply to an even smaller lot. That’s because “Gravity” sets the bar for cinematic spectacle so high.
Director Alfonso Cuaron’s ultra-realistic tale of disaster and survival in near-Earth orbit is easily the best movie about space exploration since “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s also the most spectacular and awe-inspiring cinematic experience in recent memory.
Like Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, the primary appeal of “Gravity” is in its authentic representation of life in zero-G. But unlike “2001,” which was set in a science-fictional future of advanced space exploration, “Gravity” is set in the relatively lower-tech present, where space stations are little more than airtight tin cans and astronauts float through space in bulky padded suits that make them look like helium-packed marshmallow people.
The two astronauts in the middle of it all are Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a charmingly flippant mission commander, and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), an anxious scientist. We first meet them in an extended, bravura opening shot that follows them as they perform their duties on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station.
Mr. Cuaron’s camera spins and twists freely with the astronauts as if it too is untethered from the pull of the earth. The expert use of 3-D adds expanse and depth, and nearly makes up for years of useless, cynical 3-D conversions on movies that don’t benefit at all from the format. Combined with a large-format IMAX screen, the film offers the distinct sense that you too are floating along with Matt and Ryan — a sensation so strong that sensitive viewers may experience more than a touch of vertigo themselves.
It’s beautiful, and astounding, and eerily quiet. But things don’t stay calm for long. An accident sets off a series of disasters that force Ryan and Matt into emergency survival mode — and eventually put Ryan out on her own.
Mr. Cuaron’s staging of the movie’s multiple orbital catastrophes is nothing short of masterful — there are moments here among the most tension-filled and nerve-racking I’ve ever seen in a movie.
It helps that Miss Bullock grounds the film in such an appealing emotional center. Even as the world around her spins out of control, it’s easy to stay with her, and to care about her fate as if it were one’s own.
The movie is as thoughtful as it is gripping. Mr. Cuaron, who co-wrote the film along with his son Jonas Cuaron, makes much of both the vast emptiness of space and the rudimentary nature of man’s protection against the infinite vacuum. It’s a terrifying, incredible depiction of human will and ingenuity in the harshest environment ever explored.
How big the universe is, and how small we are, the movie seems to say — and yet look how much we tiny humans have accomplished. “Gravity” is a celebration of human achievement and potential that is, fittingly, also a great cinematic achievement.
CREDITS: Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, written by Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron
RATING: PG-13 for space-bound disasters, language
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS