Gravity (2013) is an exhilarating physical experience. It’s less a movie than a ride and yet it’s all movie, and in that it proves, nearly beyond doubt, that movies are the greatest vicarious art form. Perhaps movies are best when they use that ability to make the audience live other lives and grow as people, but I think we can all agree that they aren’t any more fun than when they make you feel as if a giant shark is chasing you, or a giant alien is after you, or, as in the ridiculously entertaining Gravity, you are one slip away from drifting off into space for the rest of your life.
Astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are working on the outside of a space shuttle. Kowalski is a seasoned vet who’s jokingly pursuing the world’s spacewalking record, and his casual relationship with Stone, the voice of Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris), and certainly with the danger of being in space and tethered to safety by only a cord are disarming and comforting to Stone, a scientist who is on her first space mission, even if she doesn’t fall for his charms as much as he thinks she does. Suddenly, however, the jokes are over. Mission Control alerts the astronauts that a Russian satellite has exploded and wreckage debris is headed their way. Caught outside of the craft makes them spectacularly exposed, and as the flying pieces of satellite act like shrapnel and tear the shuttle apart, the two are forced away from the ship and drift away, tied to each other and with only Kowalski’s limited propulsion system separating them from a long trip to Pluto. The rest of the movie, which is deceptively brief at 80 minutes but is long enough in the imagination, is devoted to Stone’s trek to save herself, first by boarding an abandoned Russian station then a Chinese one, each with its own dangers and mishaps as the vast expanse of space dominates the screen, always threatening to get its long, all-encompassing cold fingers on her.
It’s that ubiquitousness of space that makes Gravity a unique type of horror movie. Make no mistake—the movie exists to scare you. It’s not an adventure movie like Apollo 13 (1995), which it in some ways resembles, especially in its maddeningly entertaining compounding of problems and its uplifting ending, but Apollo 13 was interested in setting up and paying off, presenting a problem, describing fully why it’s a problem, watching its characters work against the problem and then have them solve it. Gravity presents only one problem and it’s essentially the same problem in many a slasher movie: This thing is here to kill you and if you don’t run (or in Gravity’s case, drift toward Earth), it’s going to get you. The slasher movie makes it hay in moments in which its killer can jump out and attack but in Gravity, the killer is always there, always attacking, like the figure in a nightmare who doesn’t get any farther away no matter how far you run. I was given the feeling of what my psyche believes it would be like to drown, struggling against an impossible force, pointlessly flaying my limbs about (which Bullock does for much of the running time). The chilling difference is that drowning would, I fear, consist of a frenzied but brief amount of panic until I ran out of oxygen; here, depending on the amount of air in my suit, that panic could be extended to horrifying lengths were I to drift off into space.
Director Alfonso Cuarón is able to elicit these feelings of dread without relying on cheap horror tricks. With his killer always onscreen, Cuarón creates a tension he is able to expertly sustain from nearly beginning to end. Cuarón does a masterful job of playing with that tension, ramping it up and slowing it down but never letting it fully abate. In still moments he’ll have a small piece of equipment float by, never letting us forget that even though things are settled down now, everything is only a moment away from floating off into nothingness. When the action is ramped up, Cuarón deviously pumps every second for giddy excitement, exemplified by one moment that, when it was over, required an exhausted laugh, the type only the best action moments can produce. Stone is moving fast toward the Chinese space station, having used what looks like a fire extinguisher to propel herself there. She’s in danger of passing over it and she furiously grabs at it while it passes below her, and at the very last minute she’s able to grab hold of a rod at the ultimate end of the station. Much of the action is like this, designed to wring you out.
Cuarón also deftly handles the musical score by Steven Price, which is haunting, dystopian and loud, as if an orchestra played Schoenberg while each member started at a different place in the score. What Cuarón does best is not use it when appropriate, giving us silence at the most delicious times. He has a firm grip on when his movie will make us gasp, and he uses silence at those exact moments, returning sound when he feels it’s our right to breathe again.
Credit goes to Bullock, too, for infusing more of a purpose in Gravity than to just be the stuff of nightmares. Bullock’s assignment is not too different than Tom Hanks’ in Cast Away (2000) or James Franco’s in 127 Hours (2010)—to be the human center in the middle of a singular disaster—and while Bullock is up to the challenge in terms of charisma, I thought less about Hanks and Franco and more about Juliette Binoche in Kieslowski’s Blue (1993). Bullock’s Stone tells her fellow astronaut early in the movie about the loss of her daughter, and that pain, more than any sort of first-time jitters, explains why she wasn’t as amused by Kowalski’s nonchalance. At a certain point, Gravity seemed like a physical embodiment of the internal crisis at the center of Blue, where Binoche’s character has also lost a child and tries to close herself off from the world, drifting off into a space of her own making. When literally faced with the vastness of space, Bullock’s Stone rejects it, and in that rejection rediscovers a point in living and the beauty of the world (Kowalski, the old pro, is still awed at the Earth from space early in the movie while Stone barely notices). Her triumph in the end would have been merely satisfying had Stone been played by anyone but Bullock’s delicate strength; her ability to project a sort of vulnerable competence makes the movie soar to a different height. Look at the last shots of the movie as Stone, newly returned to Earth, stumbles as she tries to stand up on a beach. She’s a subject of the laws of gravity again, and she’s never been so happy.