Space: Is there anything more boundless and constricting at the same time? Is there anything more frighteningly beautiful? The vast, unreachable depth of the stars is awe-inspiring, yet floating in the void would make anyone feel small and insignificant. We are only a speck in the universe, trying to shimmer as bright as its stars. But I imagine a level of peace is acquired when one floats above the Earth. Removed from life’s burdens, serenity manifests in the form of weightlessness and muted sounds. Perhaps it’s the only form of Heaven within our reach. Yet, just thinking about our universe’s open range is enough to induce a claustrophobic sensation in the depths of my gut. Now, could you imagine drifting aimlessly amidst the stars, tethered to nothing? Panic devours serenity; death is seemingly imminent. There’s nothing left to do but wait patiently until your oxygen levels dissipate, and the universe swallows you whole.
This is the unfortunate end game for Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a first time space explorer tasked with fixing a satellite that has seen better days. Removed merely a day from heading back to Earth, Ryan diligently works with gravity being her reward. Assisting Ryan is Matthew Kowalski (George Clooney), a savvy space veteran who is less than an hour away from achieving an unimaginable record: most time spent sifting through space. Together they make their repairs, but routine maintenance work mutates into a tragic event when debris from a destroyed Russian satellite collides with our fearless crew and their beacon. Dramatic destruction launches Ryan away from safety, flipping her head over toe into the abyss. Breathless and overwhelmed with anxiety, Ryan’s impromptu flight reinforces the notion she was never meant for this kind of life. Thankfully, her nightmare is stalled when Kowalski, who is sporting a jet pack, miraculously finds his way back to her. Desolation is easier to swallow when not alone. Off in the distance, Kowalski finds salvation in the form of the International Space Station. With Ryan’s oxygen hastily declining and another storm of debris on its way, hope is miles away.
Much like his previous film, Children of Men, an unforgettable sci-fi masterpiece that’s as technically perfect as it is emotionally profound, Alfonso Cuarón has woven a small, intimate story into a massive cinematic undertaking. Cuarón, always seduced by the finer details of a place and time, has crafted the definitive space experience for those with their feet firmly planted on the ground. Harnessing a technical prowess that has made special effects maestro James Cameron gush, Cuarón promptly drops us into space and establishes its natural laws within a single take. As his camera sweeps around without breaking away, we experience the sheer beauty of looking down at the Earth as it quietly rotates, as well as the frightening immeasurable depth surrounding it. Right away we recognize the splendor and its spoils, and right away we can see Cuarón is working on another level. Only a master like Cuarón can elicit awe and fear from us in a single take. Cuaron’s investment in long takes, seamless special effects, and the rigid rules of zero-g culminate into an unforgettable experience, which is only heightened by seeing the film in IMAX 3D.
From a production standpoint, Gravity is one of the most impeccably crafted films of the last decade. You will certainly see nothing like it. But Cuarón isn’t content with a well constructed ride because without some semblance of a story to tell, it would be a hollow adventure. Cuarón, who shared scripting duties with his son Jonás Cuarón, doesn’t lose sight of the human element. Ryan’s survival is always front and center. Initially, her intent to survive is almost instinctual, but as her opportunities dim and the end nears, personal rebirth propels her forward into the unknown. Her arc is simple, perhaps cliché to a degree, but is wonderfully sold by Cuarón and an Oscar caliber performance from Sandra Bullock who, much like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, is practically playing in a one woman show. Having not much to play off of, outside of a small, but heartwarming performance from George Clooney, Bullock masterfully exposes her character’s disheartening scar tissue, and fashions it into a badge of courage and resolve. Most importantly, death gives way to life. In the simplest of terms and in the grandest of vessels, Cuaron’s Gravity throttles the heart and resuscitates the soul, helping us find peace in the void.