Space has long been the perfect backdrop for films to explore philosophical and religious questions, often to the point of cliché, but close to none of this is touched upon in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.”
Instead, the film would be more accurately characterized as a testament to the human spirit — a modern day “2001” that illustrates the power of perseverance and sacrifice.
The premise is simple enough: a bio-medical engineer, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), is on her first space mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Accompanying her is seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) on his final mission and the soothing voice of Mission Control in Houston (Ed Harris).
Almost immediately, trouble strikes and Houston warns the astronauts that debris from an exploded Russian satellite is setting off an unexpected chain reaction of destruction, accumulating into a storm headed toward our protagonists.
The storm hits, the shuttle is damaged beyond repair, all communication from Houston is lost, and Dr. Stone is torn from her post and sent reeling uncontrollably through space to her immense panic.
Kowalski, fitted with a thruster pack, is able to retrieve her, but dangerously low oxygen levels and a barely functioning escape pod are only the beginning of many problems the pair has to face in order to figure out their way back to Earth.
The sheer extravagance of the visuals is completely indescribable and is perhaps the closest most of us will ever come to actually being in space. A breathtaking cinematic single-shot dominates the first act of the film, looping around the shuttle and the astronauts with calming ease, offering a stunning shot of Earth below.
Space is clearly an important factor in the film and can almost be personified as a character in itself. Director Alfonso Cuarón uses its vastness to employ a sense of peaceful majesty in one scene and claustrophobic chaos in the one immediately following.
Aiding the visuals is Steven Price’s haunting score, which flits from screeching string instruments and thundering electronics to choral vocalists and simple piano at the appropriate moments.
While seeing such familiar faces portraying the pivotal roles is initially jarring, Clooney and Bullock both deliver earnest and impactful performances that bring all attention away from their A-list status and on to the characters on the screen.
A smart aleck with a cocky and teasing demeanor, Kowalski isn’t too far a deviation from the characters Clooney is known for. However, the character’s ability to keep calm and instill a bit of humor works well in contrast to the frenzied situation at hand.
The surprising standout is Bullock, who portrays Dr. Stone and her internal conflicts with perfect subtlety and deeply emotional bravado. While an added backstory comes across as a bit of a gimmick utilized for garnering forced sympathy, the audience finds themselves urging Dr. Stone on and hoping dearly for her survival regardless of whether or not “Miss Congeniality” had previously left a bad taste in their mouths.
As mentioned above, Cuarón does not use “Gravity” as an opportunity to expound upon any theological or existential debates, but rather as a thrilling study into the behaviors and actions of a human lost in an unforgiving and unfamiliar environment.
It is almost with complete certainty that no other movie this year will match “Gravity” on its scale of sheer spectacle and stunning visuals. The film is a breathtaking visual spectacle that pulls the viewer into the vastness of space with very little effort, thus it has also raised the bar for all space movies to come in the future.
RECOMMENDED: The visual experience alone is worth the price of admission.