Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” just might have the most horrifying premise in all of movies. There are several other strong contenders like “Buried,” in which Ryan Reynolds was trapped in a coffin underground, and “127 Hours,” where James Franco was stuck between a rock and a hard place. But honestly, what’s scarier than being stranded in space with limited air and no communication with Earth? Going to outer space is in itself a fairly scary thought. The notion of anything going wrong up there is the worst nightmare imaginable. As the tagline to “Alien” says, in space no one can hear you scream.
The film opens on a space shuttle orbiting Earth. Sandra Bullock is Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first space expedition after six months of training. She’s accompanied by George Clooney’s Matt Kowalsky, a wisecracking veteran astronaut with one mission left until retirement. While the crew is out on a space walk, wreckage from a satellite collides into the shuttle. Stone is sent flying into open space, separated from the others. Her only contact is Kowalsky, who tries to guide her to safety via microphone.
Cuarón has made one of the most breathtaking 3-D experiences of all-time, marrying faultless special effects with transcendent cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki, who photographed Cuarón’s “Children of Men” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” needs to win his first Oscar for this outing. Full of arresting tracking shots and haunting POV shots, “Gravity” becomes a true out-of-body experience that sucks the audience right into the action. Watching the movie, you’ll actually start to believe the cast and crew went into space and filmed on location. Obviously that would not be impossible, but the fact that any film could so convincingly create this illusion is a triumph.
Not only does “Gravity” look great, it sounds fantastic. People rarely consider sound while watching a movie, unless it’s aggressively loud. Much of the film sounds as if the audience is stuck in that space suit with Bullock. We hear the ringing in her ears, the beating of her heart, and debris from the shuttle crashing around her. Never has a movie done such an authentic job at not only taking its audience to space, but also fully emerging them into the experience. This is exactly what 3-D filmmaking was made for.
Of course “Gravity” goes beyond just being visually dazzling. Like last year’s “Life of Pi,” it’s an amazing story, too. This is thanks to Cuarón’s effective script, which he wrote with his son, and Bullock’s committed performance. Bullock rarely gets enough credit as a dramatic actress. Sure she won the Academy Award for “The Blind Side,” but has since received backlash from everybody. Am I the only one who still thinks she deserved that Oscar? She carries every minute of “Gravity” on her shoulders and there’s definitely a lot to carry. From beginning to end, the audience feels all of Bullock’s dread, excitement, denial, loss, regret and hope.
Hopeful is actually the best word to describe “Gravity.” As frightening as it may be at times, it’s truly an encouraging film that will motivate anybody to be brave. It’s additionally a film that understands what bravery is, something that “After Earth,” another science fiction thriller, simply missed the mark on. In a sense, “Gravity” really sums up exactly what people think of when considering outer space: A void that’s big and intimidating, but also somehow inspiring.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.