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.