If the measure of a film's true greatness is how deeply it immerses you into a world we're unlikely to experience in reality, then Gravity is purely, simply one of the best movies ever made. Technically brilliant and emotionally devastating, it stands as a crowning achievement in the realm of science-fiction and a master stroke by director Alfonso Cuaron seven years after his mesmerizing Children of Men. Every breathtaking moment is the closest any of us are likely to ever come to being out in the murky, beautiful, and lonely expanse of deep space.
With a seamless ease of motion capturing the gut-wrenching weightlessness of zero gravity, Cuaron introduces the characters with whom we will embark on this incredible journey. Sandra Bullock is Dr. Ryan Stone, a nervous scientist working on the Hubble Telescope alongside George Clooney as chatty and instantly likable veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky. In-between sharing stories with the folks in Houston mission control we learn that that this is Kowalsky's final mission before retirement. "Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission" he jokes, perhaps echoing our own thoughts based on hundreds of "one final mission" movies we've sat through over the years. It all feels so natural, moves so elegantly you barely notice that more than ten minutes have passed and Cuaron hasn't cut a single frame, taking the single-tracking technique he's known for to glorious new heights.
It's easy to get sucked into the beauty of the imagery, the floating calm and the relative silence, but that comfort comes with the realization that something terrible has to happen. And it does in epic fashion as the destruction of a satellite launches a wave of debris that destroys everything in its path. Their shuttle destroyed, the crew dead, and Mission Control hopelessly out of reach, Kowalsky and Stone are stranded in a sea of darkness with only minutes of air between them. The rest of the film is a simple battle for survival, although nothing about it proves to be simple at all. With only 90 minutes until the next and likely fatal debris wave, the film unfolds in real-time as the two make their way from one trashed space station to the next looking for whatever can get them back to Earth.
Cuaron understands the magnitude of what these two characters are facing. One false move will leave them drifting helplessly forever in nothingness, slowly dying miles away from everything and everybody you ever cared about. Could there be a worse fate? The threat of such a horrifying end is the engine that drives every decision, and makes every obstacle in their path all the more threatening. You'll never want a tether to hold its grip more, or for an oxygen tank to keep one more gulp of air. There are no invading extraterrestrials (although Marvin the Martian makes a funny "cameo"); the real danger comes from indecisiveness, inaction, and a lack of perseverance.
It's Cuaron and his co-writer/son Jonas' emphasis on making this a story about human fears, strengths, and weaknesses that elevates it above just another action flick. While Dr. Stone begins as something of a side character to Kowalsky's heroic do-gooder in the beginning, her tragic past is revealed quietly and efficiently throughout until we completely understand what motivates her, and what scares her the most. Bullock has never been better, displaying a vulnerability, determination, and sense of humor while stuck inside of a bulky astronaut suit. Underneath all of the jokes and provocative teasing, Clooney shows a fatherly instinct as Kowalsky guides Stone through her justifiable panic.
Although he directed Children of Men and the best Harry Potter film, 'Prisoner of Azkaban', Cuaron has yet to achieve the notoriety he has long deserved. Don't expect that to last much longer. There has never been a film that looked a technically perfect as Gravity, but more importantly there has never been a film that feels quite like this. The physics of spaceflight are rendered flawlessly, or as much as we can possibly imagine them to be, and it never falters as Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki artfully shift our perspective. Every scene, every angle, is presented with a very clear purpose; there are no wasted movements. Nor is there a single sound that doesn't carry some dramatic impact. In the heavy silence of space Steven Price's incredible score sets a mood that will leave you gasping for breath, but it's most effective during the "quiet" moments, while it can become overbearing during the biggest sequences, especially towards the finale. The conclusion as a whole is a touch melodramatic and threatens to break the carefully-constructed realism, but it never quite reaches that point and is wholly satisfying when all is said and done.
Perhaps the most impressive thing is all the troubles Cuaron had even getting Gravity made, spending the better part of a year trying to find a cast (Robert Downey Jr. and Natalie Portman were attached at one point, amongst many others) and suffering some major production delays that would have killed other films. To come out of all that to create a visceral experience that defies expectations and pushes cinema to a whole new level is truly extraordinary. Only an extraordinary director like Cuaron could hope to pull it off. There has never been a movie like Gravity before, and it may be a long time before we see its like again, so run out and see this instant classic as soon as possible.