Sandra Bullock, in the performance of a lifetime, spends most of this wondrous wallop of a movie lost in space, alone where no one can hear her scream. And because director Alfonso Cuarón, a master of pure cinema, puts us right up there with her in glorious 3D, you breathe like she does, feel like she does and panic like she does until, after 90 minutes of gulping, gasping suspense, you start seeing with blinders off. Like she does.
A great movie is hard to define. So let Gravity do it for you. With enthralling detail, it offers thrills, humor, dazzle, disaster, poetic vision and mythic reach. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey set the bar for philosophical exploration of an unknowable universe by gazing outward. With deceptive simplicity, Gravity looks inward at something closer at hand but just as profound: the intricacies of the human heart.
Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a NASA engineer on her virgin voyage into space. Her mission is to help repair the Hubble telescope. This rookie looks ready to puke inside her helmet. Her guide is Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), a charm-boy astronaut who’s seen it all and has a joke for all he’s seen. Clooney takes a small role and runs with it, his Buzz Lightyear banter working to defuse tension. “You’re the genius up here,” he sasses. “I only drive the bus.” The buoyancy of these early scenes, cutting through the eerie silence of deep space, is in marked contrast to the horror that develops when a Russian satellite destructs and sends debris hurtling toward the shuttle. That leaves Bullock and Clooney to defy gravity and death nearly 400 miles above the looming Earth.
Don’t let anyone spoil what happens next. Just know that Cuarón, the gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual-effects wizard Tim Webber are trailblazers whose imaginations accept no limits. The script, by Cuarón and his son Jonás, occasionally drifts into dangerous emo territory, but the film’s images speak with heart-rending eloquence. Cuarón’s artistry is evident in films as diverse as Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the third and best of the Potter series) and the indisputably brilliant Children of Men. The Mexican-born Cuarón is a true visionary. In tandem with the Bullock tour de force – she blends ferocity and feeling into a triumphant, award-caliber portrait of grace under pressure – he turns Gravity into a thing of transcendent beauty and terror. It’s more than a movie. It’s some kind of miracle.