In perhaps the most breathtaking sequence in director Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 masterpiece Children of Men, a long unbroken shot takes us through the hellscape of a war-torn refugee camp, the camera low and searching, the action close and granular. The camera moves shakily through desaturated rubble punctuated by spurts of gunfire, the crunch and clatter feeling terrifyingly immediate. Cuarón ingeniously placed us right there with the daring and brio that is his signature. That was seven long years ago, but now, finally, Cuarón's inventive, visceral intensity has returned to us. But his focus is decidedly less terrestrial this time. With Gravity, he's not just pointed his camera at space, he's launched it up there and let it spin dizzily in orbit for a harrowing 90 minutes. A wonder of technical filmmaking, Cuarón's latest is a survival thriller for the ages.
Gravity begins quickly, introducing us to a trio of astronauts on a mission involving the Hubble telescope. One of these brave souls is a first-timer, a medical engineer named Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). She's tentative, a little queasy, just as we are as Cuarón first pulls back and shows us the vastness of the void. Stone at least has a source of genial comfort in Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut on his last mission. The mood is both serene and uneasy, with the relaxed, colloquial banter between the astronauts and mission control (an uncredited Ed Harris — who else?) contrasting the horrifying and mind-boggling fact that they're, y'know, floating in freaking space. This being an economically paced film, calamity soon strikes and Ryan and Matt find themselves alone and adrift, struggling to find a way home.
From the first scene of destruction — caused by debris from a destroyed Russian satellite — Cuarón makes a yawning, impossible hell of this black nothing, crashes and explosions eerily silent as we swirl and swirl and swirl. He takes us to the edge of vertigo before steadying the frame and moving on to the next agonizing sequence. We're never truly in stasis, as Stone (who is soon all alone) has limited time to overcome a mounting series of obstacles and catch an escape pod to Earth.
Eschewing the traditional "Vomit Comet" plane rides often used to capture actors in zero gravity, Cuarón, with his trusty cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his wizardly special effects team, created elaborate wiring systems and light boxes to simulate space. The effect is graceful and scary, and so immersively convincing that you occasionally have to stop and remind yourself that it's all fake. Well, you don't have to, I just chose to, lest I exploded into a ball of stressed-out molecules during the film's several jaw-dropping, hair-tingling set pieces. Both Bullock and Clooney, but Bullock especially, entirely sell the artifice of the endeavor. Considering they were thrashing around in green screen land, strung up on wires for the duration of the shoot, their performances are remarkably textured and responsive. It takes a lot of imagination to pull this off with any sense of credibility, and these two actors (again, Bullock in particular) bring refreshing clarity of purpose to such a busy, frenetic film.
Gravity's one real misstep is its script, written by Cuarón and his son Jonás. For a film boasting such dazzling technical proficiency, the screenplay trends discordantly toward the hokey. Bullock's character is given a back story that, while allowing Bullock one lovely scene of connection with both the Earth below and the mystery beyond, feels too convenient and heavy-handed. And there are some seriously clunky lines, perhaps none more so than "I hate space," which given the circumstances of the particular moment could perhaps be considered the understatement of the year. I wish that the Cuaróns had been more inspired by the spareness of their setting and honed the script down to something as simple and efficient as possible. But instead there's too much corn and deliberate heart-tugging; the script is distractingly old-fashioned while everything else feels bold and modern.
Speaking of bold and modern, I'd be remiss not to mention Gravity's deep, pulsating, thoroughly inspired score. Steven Price's compositions have their spacey and ethereal moments as required, but truly impress when filling the frame with an oddly propulsive kind of dread. Thick, fuzzy electronic groans are cut through with piercing strings, making the horror of the scene feel both sudden and infinite. Parts of this score sound unlike anything I've ever heard in a movie, jarringly aggressive and industrial. When the film reaches its heart-stopping, near ecstatic finale, Gravity has swallowed us whole with its riot of sight and sound; it's the kind of picture that demands a big screen with rumbling speakers, that is actually emboldened by 3D technology. Through incredibly complex technical means, Cuarón has made a remarkable but simple story of flight and endurance. You could not ask for a more beautifully bracing experience at the movies this year. Rocket, don't walk.