There are several moments in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” in which its protagonist, astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) forgets to breathe. Watching the film’s nerve-shredding moments of life-or-death action from the comfort of a movie theater seat, you’ll likely find yourself forgetting to breathe, too.
“Gravity,” Cuarón’s first film since 2006’s “Children of Men,” follows Stone and her seasoned and gregarious co-astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as they attempt to repair a satellite on a routine space walk. “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” Kowalski says, before launching into another one of his many stories. All appears normal, and the two even take a moment to admire the staggering beauty of Earth from space—that is, until the destruction of a Russian satellite starts a chain reaction that destroys other satellites, causing shrapnel to rocket toward the pair. Stone and Kowalski are soon sent tumbling helplessly through zero gravity as metal chunks tear toward them at a deadly pace.
Unlike other movies centering on man’s struggle against nature—films that feature their heroes forging through the wilderness, steeling themselves against the ravages of the tundra, or staying afloat in the middle of an ocean—Stone doesn’t even have the comfort of gravity to keep her, well, grounded. Instead, she hurtles through space, struggling for balance amid clouds of satellite debris that appear like lethal bursts of confetti.
The film opens with a technically brilliant, uninterrupted 17-minute shot, one of the most impressive long takes this side of the ballroom scene in Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons.” At one point, Cuarón shoots Bullock as an unbelievably small speck suspended between the blue expanses of Earth and the ineffable void of the cosmos, lost in hopeless orbit. The film recalls David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” the ballad of unlucky Major Tom, “sitting in a tin can far above the world.” Bullock puts it best as she groans with exhaustion, “I hate space.”
Bullock offers a bravura performance as a woman who is well-acquainted with loss but who refuses to give up in the face of near-certain death. The panic and pain play subtly across her face in Cuarón’s claustrophobic close-ups—her understated performance allows her to be a perfect avatar through which the audience can experience her journey.
One gorgeous shot shows Bullock, vulnerable, her head shorn, curled up and fetus-like in the zero gravity of the International Space Station. Another shows her emotionally cratered face wiped of affect, as she contemplates suicide. Clooney also shines in his role as a wisecracking cheerleader.
The film’s most glaring fault is that, with all its unmoored, dizzy spinning and streaks of light, it can give one an incredible headache. But one feels all the more sympathy for the characters themselves, whose heads must have throbbed as they twirled like tops through the ether. Some of the science is questionable, but Cuarón dispenses with strict adherence to Newtonian physics in order to spin an arresting saga. This film is about survival—the instinct to keep forging ahead in the face of spectacular destruction—and reminds you not only of the tenacity of the human spirit, but also of how lovely it is to be firmly on the ground.
“Gravity” is showing at the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9, 2309 Frederick Douglass Blvd., and AMC 84th Street 6, 2310 Broadway.