In the course of his fabulous new film, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón achieves countless technical marvels. But the effect that impressed me most was in the opening moments, where he makes a group of astronauts tinkering with the Hubble Telescope 400 miles above the Earth seem as routine as a bunch of mechanics switching out mufflers in a Midas shop.
Half the screen is filled with the most eye-poppingly gorgeous, convincingly detailed rendering of our planet ever to grace a screen. Around it is the black velvet of movie history’s deepest, richest, most photo-real depiction of space. Then, just when you expect the classical music to kick in, what you hear is a corny country song.
That’s the first of many clever references the director makes to other great space odysseys throughout Gravity. It is, of course, an allusion to the cassette recorder that played Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’” ever more slowly as its batteries died in Apollo 13, a classic of the genre with which Cuarón’s movie has much in common. It’s also Matt Kowalski’s (George Clooney) way of livening up the workaday grind — blasting tunes through a sound system built into his space suit while he zips about with his jet-pack.
He may be hundreds of miles above the Earth, but it’s all downtime for him at the moment. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is the NASA engineer whose job it is to fix whatever is malfunctioning on the giant device. “You’re the genius,” he jokes when she pleads with him to turn the music off. “I just drive the bus.” The voice in their helmets emanating from mission control is that of Ed Harris. Another nice touch, whether the allusion is to Apollo 13 or to The Right Stuff — in which he did, after all, play John Glenn.
A third space walker practices dance moves in the distance. Kowalski tells one tall story after another. Only Stone, making her maiden shuttle trip, is trying to get any actual work done. Between having zero luck locating the glitch and struggling to keep her lunch down, she’s not having a great day. Little does she know how much worse it’s about to get.
In a matter of seconds, debris from a blown-up Russian satellite hurtles through the scene like a blizzard of rusty daggers. It decimates the ship and kills everyone in and outside it other than Kowalski and Stone, who survives only to find herself untethered and somersaulting into space. Remember astronaut Frank Poole, cast into the void by HAL 9000 in 2001? It’s as though Cuarón wondered what it must’ve been like to experience that unimaginably horrifying situation. So, with his son, Jonas, he wrote a script picking up where Kubrick left off and imagining precisely that.
To say one word more about what happens would not just violate movie critic law; it would be rude. Everyone who loves film and appreciates innovation on a visionary level deserves to watch this picture play out with an uncompromised capacity for surprise. Even awe. Once you’ve seen it, I highly recommend reading about the way it was made.
Cuarón, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber worked some true movie-making miracles — the kind that work so well, there isn’t a trace of them on the screen. Gravity sets a new standard for the artistic use of 3-D and features a white-knuckle narrative on top of first-rate performances from two of the world’s biggest stars. It’s a minimalist masterpiece that more than merits the response it’s gotten from the public and critics alike. How fitting, given its subject, that the acclaim has been universal.