A must-see movie more than four years in the making, Gravity is a tribute to human ingenuity, both in front of and behind the camera. The story is simple, but the stakes are as extreme as it gets. Astronauts Dr. Ryan Stone and Lt. Matt Kowalski (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) find themselves the sole survivors of a catastrophic accident in space. Their ride home, the space shuttle, is damaged beyond repair after being bombarded by satellite debris. As oxygen and fuel levels drop, they have less than 90 minutes before that orbiting cloud of space shrapnel returns. That's just an hour and a half to find a safe harbour and start thinking about making the 600 km journey back home.
Given all that went into Gravity's creation, you could almost call it an animated movie. The 91-minute adventure is a seamless blend of computer-generated imagery and a bit of ol' school movie magic. After he explored just about every option available to him, including filming in the Vomit Comet (as Ron Howard did for Apollo 13), director Alfonso Cuaron decided to simulate space instead, by positioning his astronauts in something dubbed "The Light Box."
Imagine Bullock sitting on a hydraulic office chair inside a revolving cube made from LED Jumbotron-like screens. Focused on her was a camera mounted on the same kind of robotic arms that General Motors uses to build cars. With this set-up, Cuaron and his cinematographer were able to simulate the effects of zero gravity at their studio in London. For the more complex movements, puppeteers from War Horse were brought in. Still, so much of this movie rests simply on her face: her reactions, gasps and muttered pleas as she pin-wheels through the void.
In many ways Gravity is the movie Cuaron has been working towards for years. In his film Children of Men, we were treated to long, uninterrupted tracking shots lasting four, five, even seven minutes. Now, in this digital realm, an unhindered camera is free to roam wherever he wants. Occasionally we float inside Stone's helmet, close enough to brush her eyelashes. Then, with a faint "pop," we pass through the membrane of the visor and into the emptiness outside.
As if to prove the point, Gravity opens with a virtuosic, 17-minute tracking shot. The crew of the space shuttle appear in a single uninterrupted ballet of bodies in space, spinning and weaving. The point is to help us acclimatize and get a sense of their typical workday in zero gravity — that is, until it all goes horribly wrong.
Sandra Bullock appears in a scene from Alfonso Cuaron's lost-in-space thriller Gravity. (Warner Bros. Pictures/Associated Press)
A film that could easily have been nothing more than cutting-edge eye candy is anchored by Bullock's remarkable performance. As Stone, a medical engineer on her first mission, she is not the average astronaut. Her stoic façade shatters the moment her tether to the shuttle is sheared away. Luckily she's still with Kowalski, the unshakable veteran played by Clooney (with his classic charisma machine in full effect). He gets her to talk about what's waiting for her back home, which how we learn of her daughter.
In many ways, Stone is a woman adrift, grasping for reasons to go on. Best known for her snappy wit and pluck, Bullock displays a new vulnerability here, especially in a scene where she shares a long-distance call to a Ham radio operator in Greenland. Floating in her tiny steel capsule of life, she laughs, cries and even barks. It's an incredible human moment in a movie that is in many ways an ode to technology.
As a special effects tour de force, Gravity is a stunning lesson in the principles of action and reaction that never lets go — which is why when Cuaron and his son (who co-wrote the screenplay) intrude on the action with exposition it feels heavy-handed. As well, in a film exploring rebirth, Clooney's charm offensive comes off a little chauvinistic at times.
Nevertheless, Gravity is a game-changer, comparable to Avatar in some ways. It's a movie that begs to be seen on the biggest, brightest screen you can find and, yes, in 3D.
In the weeks to come, there will likely be discussions about how the unlikeliness of Stone's story. Slowly, all of Cuaron's movie magic will become demystified. But when he first set out on this journey, the writer-director said his goal was to make a movie free of the traditional demands of narrative. An elemental survival story fuelled by a simple, inescapable plight: You are in space. You are alone.
It may be simple, but the images he's created transcend typical movie mechanics and become true moments of awe. And sometimes, that's enough.
RATING: 4 out of 5
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