Theaters should hand out oxygen masks when moviegoers buy tickets to “Gravity.” Director Alfonso Cuarón’s science-fiction thriller is many things, but above all else, it is one of the most suspenseful films released in years.
From the opening shot until the end credits roll, this movie does not let us catch our breath. That makes sense, of course, because as an opening title card reminds us, in space there is no air pressure or oxygen.
So when Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a scientist on her first space voyage, and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut on his last mission, are sent hurtling into space in their extra-vehicular activity suits with limited supplies of oxygen, both the story and the suspenseful filmmaking have us gasping for air right along with them.
“Gravity” begins with what will become known as one of the most impressive opening shots of this decade, a continuous take that lasts for at least 15 minutes (I was too enthralled by the story to time it accurately). This shot introduces us to our two lead characters, blasts us through the initiating event and sets up Ryan’s and Matt’s goals for the rest of the film — all while gradually building the tension until it’s tighter than a spacecraft’s airlock.
The camera begins by ever so slowly floating through space until it approaches the Space Shuttle, where three crew members are in the middle of a spacewalk to repair the Hubble Telescope.
Ryan is secured to the Canada arm of the shuttle and focused on work. Matt is test-driving a manned maneuvering unit, playfully looping around the shuttle and telescope. A third astronaut tests a tether cord closer to the shuttle cockpit.
The camera spends brief moments with Ryan and Matt, introducing each character and making us feel like we are in space with them. This movie immerses the viewer in the story world with stunning effectiveness.
Then mission control in Houston notifies the astronauts that a Russian satellite has been destroyed and the debris is in orbit. It’s nowhere near the shuttle, though, so no worries. They continue to work, and it all seems routine.
However, several minutes later mission control orders them to abort the mission because the debris has changed course and is charging toward them at 20,000 miles per hour.
Within moments, debris is pummeling the shuttle, Ryan is tumbling through space still attached to the Canada arm and Matt is desperately trying to maneuver toward her before she is completely out of range.
All this happens in the first shot, mind you, and it isn’t even finished at that point. This scene alone is a remarkable achievement, yet it’s merely the windup for the real action.
“Gravity” just might be a perfectly executed movie. The visual effects are seamless, to the point we wonder how in the world they pulled it all off. Every filmmaking element is used so deftly even casual viewers will be impressed by things like the sound design.
Bullock and Clooney — especially Bullock, since she carries most of the film — are genuinely brilliant. We have to remember, they filmed all of this in a studio in front of green screens. But we quickly forget that because they are both so convincing. They also are both locks for Oscar nominations.
In fact, there are few categories for which “Gravity” will not earn nominations from virtually every critics’ circle and awards proceeding, particularly in the technical categories.
And here is something I’ve never written: “Gravity” must be seen in 3-D. Cuarón joins James Cameron as the only live-action filmmakers to understand how to use 3-D as an essential story element rather than just a gee-whiz trifle.
Cuarón is the rare filmmaker who can work with a blockbuster budget and use an abundance of special effects, yet still tell a compelling, humanistic story.
“Gravity” is a great science-fiction movie, a riveting survival story and a mind-blowing visual spectacle.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.