You can tell from the very first shot that director Alfonso Cuaron’s outer-space survival drama “Gravity” is going to be something special.
Of course, it helps that Cuaron gives himself plenty of time to cast his spell. In a single, unbroken 13-minute sequence we’re introduced to space newbie Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who’s struggling to hold down her lunch while installing research equipment on the Hubble Space Telescope, while mission commander Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut on his final mission, tools around with his jet pack, cracking jokes over the radio with a nearby technician and Mission Control — all of them drifting lazily in zero gravity while the Earth looms gigantic and gorgeous in the background.
It’s a routine space-walking mission and it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but never in a way that has quite the same immersive effect. Cutting-edge special effects are being used to create a sense of casual hyper-realism, immediacy and intimacy that makes it easy to feel we’re right there with them. In what will soon turn into an intensely uncomfortable place to be.
Suddenly, Kowalski receives an urgent order from to “abort mission” and, just as suddenly, we see the reason for that order. The Russians have unexpectedly exploded one of their satellites, causing a chain reaction that destroys other satellites and sends a deadly storm of debris hurtling directly toward the astronauts and their space shuttle. Soon, the shuttle has been destroyed, its crew killed and Kowalski and Stone are very much on their own.
At this point, “Gravity,” which was co-written by Cuarón and his son Jonás, becomes an extremely taut and suspenseful tale of survival for its remaining, roughly 80,minutes. Cut off from contact with Houston, with dwindling supplies of oxygen and jet-pack fuel, the pair’s best slim hope is try to make their way to the International Space Station — where they might possibly find a way home.
The first order of business, though, is for Kowalski to attempt to rescue Stone, who has gone hurtling off into space while attached to an arm of the space telescope, where she whips around and around, entirely disoriented, unable to reach anyone on her radio, and utterly, thoroughly panicked. This is the moment when Cuarón moves us very close to Stone, where we will stay for the rest of the film, her experience becoming our experience. And Bullock (who reportedly spent most of the production isolated in a small room, suspended on wires in front of a green screen) makes the most of that opportunity with what may be her career-best performance: anxious, terrified, completely lost, yet resolute and determined to survive, though at first only as a matter of instinct.
If “Gravity” has a flaw worth mentioning, it’s the sentimental back-story Cuarón invents for Stone that culminates in an unnecessarily mawkish climactic scene, goosed along by a shameless bit of magic realism. That may be an unfair criticism, though, considering that “Gravity” is meant to be a crowd-pleasing mass entertainment. It’s not “Solaris,” in other words, another, far less compelling vehicle for George Clooney in outer space.
Especially considering that the best, most powerful moments in “Gravity” are profoundly eloquent in a way that requires no dialogue. Such as the scene in which the exhausted Stone fights her way into a zero-gravity airlock, strips off her space suit and simply curls up and goes to sleep in midair, turning slowly like a baby in a womb.
That’s pure artistry made possible only by mastery of craft at its highest level. And it’s only one of many similarly dazzling lyrical moments that make “Gravity” a must-see.