We could sit here all day and argue about our own personal definitions of science fiction, especially in regards to Alfonso Cuarón’s latest offering, Gravity. While the film does lack some of the traditional speculative hallmarks of the genre, like a futuristic setting, technology run amok, and pushing the present bounds of science, the action does go down in space. For all the flashing lights, fancy NASA equipment, and mind boggling cinematography, this is a story very much rooted in the current age, in the here and now. But doesn’t matter what the hell label you settle on, because regardless of what you call it, Gravity is an incredible movie, and the best reason this year to drag your ass to the theater and drop the extra cash on an IMAX ticket.
Gravity tells what is, in reality, a very small story in the grandest possible way. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first mission into space. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is on his last. There are a few other characters, but they pop up as disembodied voices. Stone and Kowalski are the only people you ever see, and the only ones that matter. What starts as a routine jaunt to fix the Hubble Telescope turns into an all-out fight for survival when a fast-moving storm of space shrapnel shreds their team and shuttle, leaving them stranded, alone, hurtling through space.
Just because Gravity skews towards the minimalist side story wise, don’t for a second think that it lacks anything in this department. The prospect of being lost and isolated anywhere is harrowing enough, but the desolation you feel as Stone tumbles through the void of space will have you gripping your armrests and holding your breath. Cuarón and Bullock put you right there in the skin of the character, and make the terror palpable. And this is why the film succeeds like it does.
The film is an incredible feat of logistical filmmaking. That much is impossible to deny. Cuarón has always been prone to long, sweeping shots that occupy large portions of his films, but this takes his behavior to an entirely different dimension. Gravity isn’t a single long take, but there are times when it definitely feels that way. There are cuts, just not nearly as many as you’re used to, nor are they as obvious as usual. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón’s longtime partner in crime, weaves his camera through the confines of various space vessels and the vast emptiness with a measured hand. One shot in particular springs to mind, where a gradual zoom pulls in on Stone’s terrified face, only to move through her visor until you are in her helmet looking out through her eyes. For a movie where camera movement is so obviously at the forefront, this type of subtlety is surprisingly prevalent.
How do you even begin to conceive of staging a film where your characters literally float free from the bonds of gravity for the entire 90 minutes? At times the camera drifts along, as if it, too, like the astronauts, has also come unmoored, left bobs through space. Bearing witness to the visual gymnastics here, you begin to understand how seven years have passed since Cuarón’s last movie.
But as dazzling as the film is on a technical level—the idea of anything else winning any award for camera work this year has become laughable at this point—it is the fragile human side that keeps you on the hook. For the bulk of the film is Bullock by herself, battling her understandable fear and nerves. She struggles to survive moment to moment, and to find the will to keep going. At its roots, despite all the trappings, Gravity is a classic human versus nature story where the hero has to persevere through great hardships, and holds her ultimate fate in her own hands.
Cuarón’s script, which he wrote with his brother Jonas, delivers countdown after countdown. Oxygen supplies run low, the debris cloud is moving at a pace the wraps it around the globe every 90 minutes, and every move is critical. This is the least forgiving environment imaginable, where any misstep will be fatal, and they continue to ratchet up the tension and pressure every step of the way. By turns chilling, engaging, and breathtaking, Gravity juxtaposes the serenity of extreme quiet with moments of swirling, chaotic terror as it hurtles you through space with Sandra Bullock.