This review was originally published on September 2, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Telluride Film Festival.
Much like any art form, great cinema is defined by its ability to transport those who experience it -- to an invented place, to a bygone time, even into a stranger’s state of mind. The medium can take us where we could never otherwise go, and in the case of Alfonso Cuarón’s effortlessly riveting “Gravity,” it can introduce us to fears that we never knew we should have in the first place.
To hear it from veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), nothing beats the views of Earth and beyond from the stars. To watch rookie Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) hold herself together while working on the Hubble Space Telescope, the vast void around them is to be feared rather than admired. “You’re the genius up here,” Matt assures her. “I just drive the bus.” Within his bravura 13-minute opening shot, Cuarón (who co-wrote the screenplay with son Jonás) efficiently establishes our two main characters, their respective skills and weaknesses, and the dire circumstances that they will find themselves in: an attempt to destroy an old Russian satellite has set off a chain reaction of debris, the rapid orbit of which soon incapacitates their shuttle and effectively strands both in outer space.
Now what? That’s better left for you to discover, but know that the pacing rarely flags over a 91-minute running time as Stone and Kowalsky struggle to make their way back home. No matter the new dilemma, Cuarón employs a remarkably lucid sense of geography and a fairly sound grasp on zero-G physics to convey their immediate peril and mounting hopelessness. Collaborating once more with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, the director exploits the camera-freeing scenario to even more elegant effect than he had in 2006’s “Children of Men” (my #1 of that year), sometimes making his way from a daunting distance to within an astronaut’s claustrophobic P.O.V. over the course of a seamless take.
The effects of weightlessness and worse are rendered impeccably throughout, rivalling countless summer blockbusters (and with actual stakes to boot), and the use of 3-D -- a post-production conversion, no less -- is incorporated to frequently astonishing effect. The sound mixing makes similarly canny use of both the silence of space and the cacophony of catastrophe that often pummels our heroes, and Steve Price’s score makes its own suitably bombastic contribution from time to time. Clooney rarely deviates from wise-cracking companion mode, but his cool guidance under pressure still makes him an ideal foil to Bullock’s already-fragile lead, and although Dr. Stone is saddled with a somewhat boilerplate trauma to overcome, the Cuaróns set it up swiftly and Bullock sells her emotional journey as well as the role’s more visceral demands, turning in a performance of exhaustive resolve at every turn.
Comparisons to this year’s Robert Redford survival drama, “All is Lost,” have been long in the making and entirely fair, though I was myself called back to the surprisingly life-affirming tenor of “The Grey” (my #1 of last year). The fact that Cuarón’s film strives to be something more than thoroughly harrowing -- no small feat in and of itself -- solidifies its existence as a marvel of not just technical craft but sheer imagination as well. The one imaginable caveat that keeps “Gravity” from embodying every reason I go to the movies is its lack of a musical sequence (though, in fairness, I didn’t stay after the credits). This is breathtaking, dizzying filmmaking. This is truly awesome.
SCORE: 9.4 / 10