After being inundated by the overwhelming number of vapid sci-fi films the past season, films that offered no real depth outside the glaring special effects and smoke screens, it's refreshing to see one that takes its story seriously. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, GRAVITY, strips down the flashiness of what we’ve come to expect from the genre and presents a meaningful return to form in a story that honors birth, death and the fight in between.
To say that medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (magnificently played by Sandra Bullock) is having a tough day is an understatement. She is moments away from her very first shuttle mission. She is safely planted on the machine she's working on, when all of a sudden astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) tells her to back away from the task at hand after they receive a warning of a spiraling Russian missile shot has destroyed an orbiting satellite, causing rapidly spraying debris to shoot right their way. It is at this time when the movie graduates from nervous anxiousness to a desperately lucid nightmare where nerves and speed work against you. Determined to finish the task, Dr. Stone spends an extra moment longer than they had, causing space quiet pandemonium. Once she decides to throw in the towel less than a minute later, she can't unhinge herself from the machine. Heeding Matt's firmly calm advice amid the rapidly flinging debris, she detaches her suit from the surface, sending her flailing out into space.
All you can hear is the sound of her frightened breathing muffled by the weight of her space suit. She has lost connection to Earth and her fellow companions (including the lighthearted yet reassuring Matt). She is all alone.
For the remaining minutes of this succinct 90-minute film, Cuarón suspends our fear as we watch Dr. Stone struggle to latch on to something, anything in her nightmare in space. The intensity of the situation is further amplified by the unyielding single setting, which is never once interrupted by a personal flashback (a frequent device in single setting films). But GRAVITY is more than its pressure-filled suspense. As we spend more one-on-one time with Dr. Stone, we get to know her personally not through dialogue (though she does reveal to Matt early on in the film that her daughter died at a young age) but through her internal struggle so masterfully portrayed by Bullock in a career best performance. She's not like the archetypal Ripley in Alien; when we first meet her Dr. Stone is emotionally dead. She refuses to dwell on her daughter's death by speaking about it and carrying it with her each day, but she has not moved past it emotionally and has shut down.
Throughout the film, and perhaps for the first time in a long time, Dr. Stone is forced to fight for something--her life. It is not until she is spiraling in space, struggling to survive on her own with barely an ability to fly a broken shuttle, does she begin to feel again. Nothing makes you want to hold tighter to life more than the thought of death itself, something that awakens Dr. Stone from her emotional purgatory.
Cuarón, who co-wrote the film with his son Jonás, helms a gripping and beautiful story that illuminates the circle of life in a very primal emotional sense. Where Terrence Malick aimed to recreate a very visual circle of life with effects and wild colors in The Tree of Life, Cuarón makes you feel the circle of life in a very quiet, solitary yet profound emotional journey brought on by a singular moment. Even though the cinematography is eye-catching and very realistic, Cuarón creates a very minimalist film that makes you feel more than see.
You'd be hard pressed to come up with a Bullock performance as gut-wrenching and honest as it is here. She allows Dr. Stone to not become a superhero, or a dolled up antihero. She's not perfect, and kicks herself about it to the point where she feels the urge several times to give up. In fact, it's not until she releases the emotional weight that roots her can she finally be free. She's just a woman, looking for her way. With almost 50 credits under her belt, Bullock may have finally found her definitive role.
With its themes of spirituality, religion, birth, rebirth and hope, GRAVITY is a film that will move audiences in different ways. That's the beauty of it; it transcends genres, generations and time, a modern classic.
Rating: A (***** out of *****)