In the beginning there is only heavens and Earth, and, in truth, the beginning is about as good as Gravity ever gets. But that beginning, which is to say the 20 minutes or so that precede the launch of the film’s rather earthbound narrative, offers one of the most amazing sensory experiences you’ll have at the cinema for some time. We see stars and darkness, then swirling Earth, then people and hardware, everything eerily buoyed by zero-gravity. Soon we too feel weightless. Sinuous? Drifting? Attempts to describe the quality of the movement of Emmanuel Lubezki’s 3D camera, of the bodies and objects onscreen, strain our existing vocabulary.
“Life in space is impossible,” says the opening title card. Apparently shooting as though you’re in space ain’t so easy either. Director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and his team of special effect geniuses spent four and a half years making Gravity. I lack the technical chops to explain how they did it. The story however, co-scripted by Cuarón and his son Jonás, is pretty simple, though it should have been even simpler. At first veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and newbie Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are doing minor repairs to their spacecraft’s exterior. All we hear is breath and heartbeats and fuzzy conversations with Houston. A running joke has Matt beginning a sentence with “I have a bad feeling about this mission.” Until it’s no longer a joke. Space debris rips their ship apart and kills their colleagues. Untethered in the nothingness with oxygen supplies rapidly depleting, Matt and Ryan must find a shuttle to get them home ASAFP.
The premise is fine. It imbues Gravity with urgency, stakes and, well, gravity. What’s less appealing is the cliché expository chatter that comes along with saving Dr. Ryan; she’s got a psychic wound that dovetails all-too-neatly with her current dilemma. What’s truly irritating is Lord of the Rings composer Steven Price’s overbearing score, which keeps bombarding us long after the debris shower ends and reaches yet another crescendo at the drop of a helmet. That aforementioned title card notes how there’s no way for sound to travel in space. “I like the silence,” Ryan says in an early scene—well, so much for that! In short, by certain conventional standards Gravity can be disappointing. But Gravity is not a conventional film. It is flawed. It is also, in its way, transcendent.