Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity begins with a staggeringly brilliant and mesmerizingly staged 17-minute single take, which manages to encapsulate every single feeling the rest of the film will instill in its viewers: tranquility, warmth, peace, trepidation, nervousness, endearment, wonder and, most of all, fear. All come racing into the heart, and by the time this incredible set piece ends, it's impossible to trust any placid feelings you'll have as the story unfolds.
With his past three films, Cuarón established himself as one of the most versatile and talented directors of his generation by wringing unlikely fears out of a wide swath of topics: fear of impending adulthood and separation anxiety in Y Tu Mama Tambien, fear of a parallel future where mistrust of God and man turns the world to chaos in Children of Men and, most obviously, fear of evil wizards and wraiths in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the boy wizard's best outing and the one that transformed the series from cutesy kiddie romps to dark and complex tales of magic.
With Gravity, the director's first film since 2006's Children of Men, Cuarón and his screenwriter son, Jonas, take on the most primal fear possible, that of being lost in an abyss of nothingness. There is no greater context here, just a very basic survival story told by a master director, who integrates complex camera trickery and jaw-dropping visual effects to create a mosaic of hopelessness.
With little beyond nervous chitchat, the film features only two actors, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Their simple space-station repair mission turns into a nightmare as debris from a destroyed satellite tears their shuttle to shreds and they're left hopelessly adrift with a dwindling supply of oxygen and no way to navigate the abyss.
Most survival films would resort to flashbacks and other flourishes to aid the viewer in understanding the motivations and backstories of characters left alone for such long periods of time, but at no point does Cuarón give Bullock a volleyball sidekick or a dream sequence where she reclaims her normal life in rural Illinois. We, like the characters, are stuck in this reality, watching the events as they unfold, mostly in real time, and gasping for our collective breath as the oxygen meter slowly runs out. It is perhaps the most stressful experience to be had in a movie theater this year, and as such it's nearly perfect.
Bullock, tasked with carrying the majority of the movie on her own, exudes terror and strength in her difficult role, her constant gasps echoing those of the audience. There are moments, though, when the script veers briefly into cheese, with Bullock psyching herself up with motivational speeches that take away from the tension, but they're almost a welcome break from the harsh reality unfolding onscreen. Clooney, here playing a supporting piece of space debris, becomes the film's sense of calm and functions as much-needed comic relief, exuding the charm only an astronaut played by George Clooney could. Both performances bring the necessary levity to the events of the film.
Those events come hurtling at the screen at such an alarming rate, it's impossible to even consider relaxing as the characters drift from one scrape with death to the next over the course of 90 unrelenting minutes. But it's in the brief lulls that Cuarón manages his most amazing feats, allowing us to stop and stare in awe at the beauty of the images onscreen, as if we're floating alongside these poor souls and grasping for some sort of tranquility amid the madness. After a particularly brutal encounter with projectiles, the camera pans over Earth to reveal the glowing lights of the aurora borealis. For a brief moment, peace. Serenity. Trepidation. Then fear and hopelessness. All flooding into our hearts at once like so much space debris. It's as haunting and beautiful as it is brilliant.
Critic's Grade: A-
Gravity is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Moreland, Bridgeport, Oak Grove, Division, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Pioneer Place, St. Johns Twin, Lloyd Mall, City Center, Hilltop, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, Sandy, Cornelius.