In space, no one can hear you scream. This is certainly true if you find yourself spinning out of all control as you’re launched away from the earth into a dark abyss with nothing but a single layer of a space suit to protect you from oblivion. Yeah, forget aliens. Space is dangerous enough as it is.
Alfonso Cuarón’s ambitious thriller “Gravity” is something truly unique and original, playing on a very real and contemporary fear. It’s set in orbit above the earth’s atmosphere where a small team of astronauts is repairing and updating the Hubble Telescope. One is Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, and he’s the carefree experienced leader of the group (though he’s only a day from retirement so he should be nervous). Another is Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, who finds space far less freeing than her colleagues. She’s uncomfortable to say the least and preoccupied with the task at hand. Just to keep the audience settled in, even if only subconsciously, they keep in contact with Houston control, which is voiced by Ed Harris, the only actor Hollywood has deemed acceptable for this recurring role.
Things quickly go awry when halfway around the world a Russian satellite is destroyed, unintentionally launching a shower of debris to circle the earth, unfortunately passing directly through their location. Ryan is cut free from the others and the ship, spiraling out into space with no sense of bearing. They quickly lose contact with Ed Harris and it becomes a losing battle against space itself to find a way back to earth.
To put it simply, “Gravity” is one of the most visually memorable and thrilling movies in the past decade. It is a testament to what can be done with computer animation, utilizing dynamic and incredible camera work to capture the enormity of open space and zero gravity. Cuarón uses some of the technology from “Avatar” to film his sequences, but there’s even more talent and skill at work here. It’s an emotional roller coaster and he films the entire movie in ways that have not yet been done before. Despite the pulse pounding excitement, it’s a very personal and affecting story that is being told, making the characters seem real and worthy of our concern and sympathy.
Right from the start, the camera is spinning around the satellite right along with the actors, filming them each in open space without a single cut. The visual effects are used so strongly here that they serve to render most of the editing invisible. It creates an illusion of continuous long running shots, filming in the actors in such a way that would be impossible even five years ago. There’s a remarkable shot that zooms in from far outside Ryan’s space suit and moves through her visor to join her inside her helmet in an extreme close up. Its camera work with absolutely no restriction of any kind, yet all the CGI adds a sense of reality, keeping us grounded with the open space around her, even if she is spinning miles above the earth.
The plot, simple as it is, thunders along rarely allowing any break. Ryan is tested again and again, constantly under a time limit for when the relentless space debris will reconnect with her position. It’s thrilling and exciting, and her desperation is easily understandable. There’s no sound outside of her suit, making all of the audio revolve around her frantic breathing and the moving background score. The very air she needs to breathe, something anyone on the earth’s surface might take for granted, is a precious commodity. The loneliness is instantly visible, despite how little we truly know about the characters. It’s something almost elemental about the vastness of space, and hasn’t been captured with such visual mastery since Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”.
It quickly becomes something of a herculean trial for her to find her way back to earth; everywhere she ends up is soon ruined by some problem or another. Despite all the dazzling visual effects and technical achievements at work here, in the end it turns into a testament to the insurmountable strength of human spirit and willpower; finding the need to survive even when all hope seems lost.
Needless to say, “Gravity” is an incredibly moving and crowd-pleasing movie. Alfonso Cuarón has a tremendous style that demands attention without seeming self-indulgent. He’s crafted a visually and emotional feast while pushing the boundaries with what can be done using actors and computer animation. “Gravity” is sure to become a landmark film as advancements continue to be made with animation and camera technology.