In many ways, Alfonso Cuarón’s new film “Gravity” is exactly what its first trailer presents it to be: a gut-wrenching 90-minute rollercoaster through Earth’s outer orbit. The film has all the hallmarks of the classic disaster film, where characters in high-stakes situations are beset with an increasingly lethal set of circumstances, where everything that can go wrong, will.
Thanks to its breathtaking technical qualities and its surprisingly profound allegorical elements, “Gravity” becomes more than another big-budget thriller and ends up being a stunningly beautiful exploration of human grief.
The story centers on Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), an emotionally damaged medical engineer who, with fellow astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), is sent careening into space when a destroyed Russian satellite sends a deadly tide of space debris into the upper atmosphere, destroying her shuttle. The film carries on at a heart-shattering gallop, pushing Stone and Kowalski through ever more dangerous encounters as they try to find a way back to Earth.
Cuarón himself has admitted that the story is a simple one, even a little implausible, and the characters are similarly straight-forward. Clooney plays the role of the levelheaded and charismatic astronaut who never buckles under pressure and provides a foil to Stone’s uncertainty. Bullock excellently plays out Stone’s emotional rebirth, transforming her character from a fearful newcomer to a confident risk taker.
The film took over three and a half years to animate and the results are truly incredible. This is a movie that demands to be seen in theaters, and something integral will most certainly be lost when it makes the transition to the small screen. Rather than using animation to create a world of the imagination, “Gravity” utilizes the technology to render an unnervingly realistic portrayal of space. The 3D components of the film thankfully never became tacky or felt like an add-on for the sake of increased profits.
Much has been made of Cuarón’s camerawork in his previous films, and the same praise should be heaped on “Gravity.” He constantly alternates between expansive shots of the planet and cramped ones inside Stone’s helmet, intimately privy to her hopelessness as she desperately searches for something to cling to.
This creates a strange binary through the film: the audience is caught between the beauty of the scenery and the terrifying dangers they present. Similarly, we alternate between Stone’s ragged breathing inside of the suit and the eerie silence of space. During moments of catastrophe, when debris is tearing apart space stations like they were made of paper, there is no sound, adding to the sense of alienation and danger.
Perhaps most spectacular about the movie, though, are its allegorical elements, which add emotion to an already visceral experience. Without giving anything away, we learn early on that Stone is a character coping with extreme grief and her trip through space, in which she is caught between the danger of falling to her death and floating into oblivion, becomes a metaphor for her struggling to make life livable again. This adds profundity to the film and makes up for the simplicity of the characters by turning them into emotional metaphors.
“Gravity” is a film for everyone. It is a physical experience that reminds us why movie theatres are still a necessary function of the medium with enough emotional weight for the audience to invest in it as a piece of art. It’s a new addition to the canon of great sci-fi films, and a must-see for anyone who wants to experience how modern film can still push limits.