There are so many appropriate words to describe “Gravity,” yet none of them seem adequate. To call it intense – and boy, is it intense – puts it in the same company as movies about serial killers and runaway buses. To call it bittersweet and uplifting brings to mind “Steel Magnolias.” (It’s nothing like “Steel Magnolias.”) It’s also mind-bogglingly gorgeous, and yet, it’s more than that as well. So forget those words, and remember this one: the movie is magical. It’s the kind of movie that will inspire a generation of kids to grab cameras and let their imaginations run wild, the proverbial face that launches a thousand ships. At the very least, it will raise the profile of director Alfonso Cuarón (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) in a way that his previous film, 2006’s brilliant and criminally overlooked “Children of Men,” should have.
Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first space mission. Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) is on his last. Stone and Kowalsky are on a spacewalk, the former trying to fix a piece of equipment she helped design, the latter simply trying to set the record for longest spacewalk. Mission Control informs them of debris from a damaged satellite headed their way and orders them to get in the ship. The debris arrives too soon, however, and shreds their space shuttle beyond repair. Ryan and Matt are the sole survivors of the assault, adrift in space, and have limited amounts of oxygen and time to find a nearby, functional spacecraft before the debris makes its way around the earth and bombards them again.
It’s an admittedly simple storyline, and in talking to people about the movie (all of whom haven’t seen it yet), they think that means it has no story. On the contrary, it has exactly as much story as it needs, and to add more would be both unnecessary and a distraction. It’s a survival story; if the narrative isn’t streamlined, they’re doing it wrong.
It would not surprise me in the slightest to discover that this movie was actually shot in space. The movie looks shockingly real, capturing the claustrophobia of life in space (and the peripheral vision limitations that come with wearing a space suit), employing a dizzying amount of zero gravity footage, and rounding things out with some of the most spectacular images ever put on film. Even better, Cuarón doesn’t even draw extra attention to those images, because he knows that the shots will speak for themselves (two words: northern lights). Cuarón also assembles another jaw-dropping tracking shot (fans of “Children of Men” just nodded knowingly), and he receives bonus points for being the first director since James Cameron to effectively employ 3D technology in a live-action movie. You will rarely read these words on this site, but absolutely see this movie in 3D.
The idea of Sandra Bullock in space might sound strange, but she turns out to be a great cast for the part of Ryan. (She’s definitely a better choice than Scarlett Johannson and Blake Lively, both of whom thankfully turned down the role before Bullock accepted.) There is a deep sadness to Ryan, and Bullock manages to keep a lid on Ryan’s emotional range without being too stoical. That’s not as easy as it sounds, and it results in some of Bullock’s finest work to date. Clooney, meanwhile, will likely be overlooked for his performance as the calm, cool and collected space jockey simply because he makes it look so easy. That would be patently unfair; if the Kowalsky character doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work, which makes Clooney’s performance invaluable. It was also nice to hear Ed Harris back at the helm of Mission Control, 18 years after his role in “Apollo 13.”
Forgive the overuse of first person (it’s generally verboten in any kind of written criticism) for this last paragraph, but it must be done. Critics are always so afraid to give a movie the highest grade on their scale, and I’m no exception. (My theory is that we’re worried about history proving us wrong, which is pretty silly when you think about it.) I’m giving “Gravity” five stars because it provided two unforgettable experiences: the one when I was actually watching the movie, and the other in the days since where the movie is still playing virtually nonstop in my head, and I absolutely cannot wait to see it again. Actually, the movie provided a third unforgettable experience: I couldn’t help but think of how much Roger Ebert would have loved this movie, because of how it taps into the magic of moviemaking. And Roger wouldn’t have thought twice about giving this his highest rating.