A moment midway through Gravity hints at the transcendence to which Alfonso Cuarón's film aspires. Seeking shelter inside a space station, a drifting astronaut emerges from a spacesuit as if from a womb. This space baby then slowly curls into a restful fetal position.
Alas, the hope that Gravity would be a cosmic meditation vanishes when trite reminders of the everyday are inserted, such as when veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) starts reminiscing about time he spent carousing at Mardi Gras.
Gravity is the story of two stranded space travelers: Kowalsky and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) were part of a shuttle mission to repair the Hubble telescope. Unfortunately, this duo is left adrift after their ship is destroyed thanks to a Russian mishap elsewhere in space that triggered a hurtling field of space debris.
Their only chance at rescue rests in locating a place to crash—no easy task when you're drifting in low Earth orbit. Fortunately, there's the joint U.S.-Russian International Space Station and China's new venture, called Tiangong. The real peril, however, are the obstacles along the journey, from dwindling oxygen and backpack propulsion, to the logistics of grabbing ahold of an orbiter as it whizzes by, to the shrapnel that zips by every 90 minutes.
Cuarón (whose credits include Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También) presents a breathtaking experience that embraces pressurized style over weightless substance. Clooney's trademark blitheness is more suited to a heist flick called Ocean's Apollo Thirteen. Bullock is required to shoulder the bulk of the acting, and she proves up for the mission. Still, even attempts at character backstory built around Stone's deceased daughter pale in comparison to the obviously more extraordinary predicament at hand.
Gravity's true star, its most charismatic character, is the digital palette of the terrestrial backdrop. Whether it's storm spirals over the ocean, a continent's craggy countenance or the spider-web shape of a nighttime metropolis, the ever-changing kaleidoscope is juxtaposed against the celestial peril.
Fittingly, the most hair-raising moments are ones where words don't matter. The audience feels Stone's helplessness as she spins off into the abyss after the initial shuttle explosion, and later her escalating hypoxia as she tries to reach an oxygenated environment. In space, no one can hear you scream, but the same can't be said for the theater.
Cuarón tosses in a few pop-space allusions along the way. At one point, a Marvin the Martian bobblehead floats across the 3D projection; as the disembodied voice of Mission Control, Ed Harris apparently hasn't left the post since Apollo 13; and with shorn dark locks and stripped down to skimpy shorts, Bullock at one point resembles Alien's Ripley.
Parallels have also been posited between Gravity and Ray Bradbury's short story "Kaleidoscope." However, one is a story of survival while the other is a paean to mortality. In truth, Cuarón's film is another entry in the catalog of films about mankind's precarious place in the universe with a passing nod at the strength of the human spirit. The director handles it all with taut aplomb befitting the big screen, but Gravity gravitates closer to a heady amusement park ride than the oeuvre of Kubrick and Tarkovsky.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lost in space."