Of the countless thrillers set in the terrifying vacuum of outer space, how many actually maroon their characters outside in the vast, unforgiving darkness, where the greatest threat to their lives aren’t dog fights or hostile extraterrestrials but simply drifting off into nothingness? Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s first film in seven years, does just that: George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play astronauts stranded in zero-g after their ride is wrecked by the debris from exploded satellites. Low on oxygen and cut off in their communications with NASA, the two float in the general direction of shelter, struggling to keep their grip on each other and not go careening into the cold, silent void. Lighting their way during this treacherous journey is the majestic glow of planet Earth, always in sight, taunting them with its seeming proximity.
That’s a terrifically elemental premise for a movie, one that Cuarón—the virtuoso who directed Children Of Men and the third, best Harry Potter movie—treats as an excuse to indulge in some truly spectacular eye candy. Gravity is a remarkable technical accomplishment, the kind of boundary-pushing F/X showcase that James Cameron seems to exclusively specialize in these days. Cuarón’s famously epic tracking shots, realized as always by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, move here on all axes. The first of them, a 17-minute single take in which the camera captures a small spacecraft drifting into view and then plunges in close to observe its crew at work, is one of the great feats of modern special effects. More than any other CGI event movie in recent memory, this one immerses its audience in the reality of its world, seducing viewers into believing they’re seeing real, corporeal bodies—with heft and dimension—caught in the orbit of celestial ones. If nothing else, Gravity makes the case for throwing immense resources at true visionaries; the blockbuster craftsman as adventurer, Cuarón expertly blends the epic with the intimate. For every stunning 3-D setpiece involving a dangerous hailstorm of metallic debris, there’s a moment of small tenderness, like Clooney framing Bullock in a mirror on his wrist as they bob their way toward salvation.
So what keeps the movie, for all its ooh-and-ahh grandeur, just out of reach of greatness? The script, penned by the director and his son, is the chief culprit: Cuarón’s camera may seem weightless as it floats through the digital cosmos, but his clunky dialogue weighs Gravity down a bit. Were the film as all-action, little-talk as Kubrick’s 2001—a milestone impossible not to think of when watching ships and humans dance balletically through space—one could take it as a pure sensory experience. But Cuarón obliterates the dreadful quiet with lots of stilted banter between his stars, forcing a simple, existential survival story to double as a parable about overcoming trauma. Much of that burden lies on Bullock’s shoulders: While Clooney gets by on charisma, flashing pearly whites through the glass of a space helmet, his co-star is slightly ill equipped to carry what is essentially a twofer. Cuarón saddles her character with a pained backstory, meant to lend the events a psychological bent. All it really does is give the characters too much to gab about. (When Bullock tells Clooney that she could “get used to” the absence of audio, it’s hard not to wish she’d clam up and let the audience be engulfed by that great hush.)
Seen on a traditional movie screen, Gravity looks like a near triumph, compromised just slightly by the tidiness of its dramatic trajectory. Stretch the film across a bigger canvas, however, and those flaws become tiny specks, dwarfed by the enormity of Cuarón’s aesthetic achievement. Put more simply: To see the movie on anything smaller than an IMAX screen is to not see it at all. Pony up to the extra cost and prepare to be wowed. Pure wonder is worth splurging on.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details not talked about in this review, visit Gravity's spoiler space.