Some filmmakers inspire feelings of mystical reverence. Their works are so consistently high in quality, so seamless, so strange, and so committed to seeing the world in a different way that they seem like otherworldly artifacts. Moviegoers look on their films with awe. Other people feel this way about the films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Terrence Malick or Christopher Nolan. Me, I’ll take Alfonso Cuarón, especially after Gravity, an unremittingly intense space thriller that is the Mexican master’s latest creation.
The film begins with a gasp-inducing 12-minute, single-take opening sequence, as Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on a space shuttle mission to perform adjustments and upgrades to the Hubble Telescope. It seems to be as routine a day as there is in space, with the other astronauts exchanging jokes with ground control in Houston (voiced by Ed Harris) and mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) gazing in wonder at the Earth. Yet the tranquil tableau soon gives way to destruction and chaos when a collision between two nearby satellites catches Stone and Kowalski outside the shuttle during a lethal, high-velocity storm of space debris. The carnage leaves Stone in a situation not covered in The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, her communications system destroyed, her oxygen running out, floating untethered in the blackness of space with no one to hear her distress calls.
This opening is a compulsively watchable piece of cinema, with the collisions making no sound in the airless void, leaving us with only the astronauts’ panicked voices and Steven Price’s music on the soundtrack. Amid the confusion, the camera finds its way onto Stone’s terrified face as she spins out of control, then works its way inside her helmet to show us her point of view (with glare bouncing off the visor and computer displays of vital statistics obscuring her vision) before pulling back into a long shot to let us know how deeply she’s screwed.
Cuarón has worked with long takes before in Y Tu Mamá También and to spectacular effect in his 2006 masterpiece Children of Men, but here he makes even more extensive use of them, as the script (which Cuarón co-wrote with his son Jonás) throws up all manner of dangers to Stone’s life from things that are logical as they crop up but can’t be imagined from her original predicament. We haven’t seen a director so enamored with the technique since the heyday of Brian de Palma, except that de Palma at his best is only as good as Cuarón is all the time. The lack of visible cuts gives us few points where we can catch our breath. Just like the astronauts, we’re suspended in mid-air by the long takes.
This movie is an amazing technical achievement, with all these long takes filmed in a simulated zero-gravity environment. One such take is a sinuous, fluid sequence when Stone finds temporary refuge in an abandoned Soviet spacecraft and swims through the interior, looking for the command module and failing to notice an important technical problem. Cuarón also puts the 3D technology to excellent use, showing us objects large and small floating toward and away from the camera. The director can’t resist showing off occasionally, as in a scene when Stone looks doomed and the tears float off her face into zero-g. You have to say, he earns the flourishes.
The director’s technique threatens to suck up all the oxygen, but thankfully Bullock is on hand to give this drama a human center. She plays most of the scenes by herself (Clooney’s role is very much a supporting one) as Stone fights to survive, and she manages to ride over the script’s infelicities — the revelation that Stone had a daughter who died in an accident comes off as a cheap sympathy ploy — without striking a false note in a markedly unforgiving setting. The focus on a single character and the brief 90-minute running time should give Gravity an intimate feel, yet as this story hurtles to its conclusion, it takes on the proportions of an epic. Walking out of this emotionally draining film, you may feel newly thankful to be on this planet, breathing wholesome air and treading on solid ground.
Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Written by Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón. Rated PG-13.