Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” opens with a static shot of the earth as seen from space. After two or three still seconds we see a distant spaceship enter the movie from the right side of the screen. It gradually drifts toward us, getting bigger and bigger. From there, the camera floats and glides around the ship, introducing us to our protagonists: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) on her first space mission and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney a veteran astronaut, as they’re working on repairs from outside the spacecraft. Sometimes the camera follows Matt, as he himself is floating around monitoring Ryan’s work, before slowly weaving back into Ryan. The situation is calm and besides some casual smalltalk going on between them, it’s quiet because there’s no sound in space. Can you imagine that? Silence.
But this serenity soon evaporates and “Gravity” becomes terrifying and intense. Floating debris from a nearby satellite comes shooting by at bullet speed and without going into too much detail, Stone gets detached and is soon drifting in empty space. The scene is exhilarating and appears to unfold in a single take (I say, “appears” because, since the movie utilizes CGI and green screens, there’s a possibility that Cuaron and co editor Mark Sanger did a really good job of hiding the cuts). And this is the nature of the rest of “Gravity:” a series of extended, fluid and graceful shots/scenes of Ryan and Matt as they try to find a way to get back to earth.
From a filmmaking standpoint, “Gravity” is a near masterpiece. Specifically because it makes you feel like you’re in space, floating and rotating around with the characters. The camera never seems to be mounted anywhere, even when it’s not moving (like at the beginning of that first scene); you still get the sense that it’s levitating, almost like Cuaron was able to suspend gravity momentarily in the studio. He and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki make good use of the 3D, not just by adding nice little touches like having objects fly out of the screen at you but also by bringing the audience into the world of the picture. You may as well be wearing an astronaut suit yourself.
Steven Price’s score starts off faint and as the tension mounts it gets louder and more thundering. And the fact that there’s no sound in space makes some of the action set pieces (the debris crashing into the spaceship, causing explosions) appear more haunting and beautiful. The acting is great across the board; Clooney is his usual relaxed, smart-alec self and Bullock’s performance goes from panicky and panty to confident and in control.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in these visual and auditory pleasures, but at the same time “Gravity” is a case of style and spectacle over substance. As cool and unique a survivalist tale set in space sounds, there’s only so much you the survivalist can do, only so much you have control over and so most of the time it's just Ryan floating around in space. The movie can get repetitive at times. Now, I don’t mean to say that “Gravity” has no substance whatsoever but even at a brief ninety minutes the story does feel a little too stretched at times. The ending feels especially drawn-out and I think it could have come five minutes earlier.
On top of that, some of the CGI (the explosions) looks unfinished and as great as the 3D looks it still dims the picture considerably. In addition, there’s a character motivation involving Ryan’s daughter stated early in the film that I wish Cuaron would have revealed more subtly or, even better, merely hinted at.
I don’t mean to come down too hard on “Gravity.” Visually it’s astonishing and it should be experienced on the biggest movie theater screen you can find. Cuaron is an immensely talented filmmaker but considering how rich and vast his last feature “Children of Men” (all the way back in 2006!) was, “Gravity” feels like a slight step in the wrong direction.