From its very first shot, “Gravity” pins viewers back in their seats, very rarely letting themselves regain their balance. The film opens on two NASA space travelers, mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), as they work outside their space shuttle, Stone trying to manage motion sickness on her first trip, Kowalski having fun with his nifty new jet pack and clowning around with Houston, hundreds of miles below. (There’s a wonderful old-school 3-D moment when Clooney reaches a giant hand into the audience to grab a stray bolt.)
It’s not too much of a spoiler to relate that, soon enough, the laughing stops — after one of the most terrifying, inspiring and masterfully composed visual sequences to be seen on screen this year. What ensues is one character’s desperate attempt to survive as the oxygen runs out, an anguished scramble through a vast, unforgiving, pristinely silent universe that Cuarón, his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and their effects team capture with precision, elegance and an amazingly expressive sense of existential dread.
Using an ingenious combination of live action, computer-generated imagery, cutting-edge lighting techniques and 3-D, Cuarón puts viewers into the tumbling, floating, frighteningly un-rooted world of “Gravity,” where Bullock and Clooney convincingly move with both balletic grace and puffy, moon-man awkwardness. As he did in the 2006 masterpiece “Children of Men,” Cuarón rigorously obeys the rules of spatial logic, an absolute necessity in a frame where there’s literally no up or down.
With viewers in such assured hands, they can safely immerse themselves in the story, which, as written by Cuarón and his son, Jonás, mimics countless plots that have gone before in which a plucky lone soul defies the odds to live another day (or not). Consonant with that tradition, there are moments of “Gravity” that could be unforgivably hokey, were it not for the utter persuasiveness with which the filmmakers and actors deliver them. Bullock does a particularly impressive job of marshaling what’s become her hallmark combination of grit, warmth and humor to invest a sense of gratifying ordinariness to a woman forced into extraordinary circumstances. Just when viewers think Stone’s plight couldn’t be more cosmically overwhelming, Bullock delivers the film’s best line — “I hate space” — with everyday whiny annoyance.
One could debate whether “Gravity” really needed a sentimental back story to make its protagonist relatable, but even that nod to Hollywood-101 storytelling and clichéd “hell of a ride” one-liners can’t detract from the sensory amazement and sheer grandeur of what Cuarón has accomplished. With sound, image and perhaps most chillingly, silence, he leads the audience wherever he wants us to go — snaking through a blown-out space station, encased within the womb of an abandoned Russian capsule, untethered and at large in a frigid, indifferent starfield — with complete authority, astonishing verisimilitude and unsettling emotional depth.