But while God has been plumbed to great depths in human art, ranging from myths told around prehistoric campfires to glurgy modern-day Hallmark movies, gravity has gotten short shrift in storytelling.
Even in some of the best science fiction, it’s all but disregarded; the only time you typically hear the word is when it’s preceded by the word “artificial” as a throwaway explanation for why people aren’t floating around a spaceship’s bridge.
But visionary filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s gives this lesser — albeit eminently more provable — G-word the title role in “Gravity,” his poetic masterpiece to human achievement and, quite possibly, the immortal human soul. “Gravity” is modestly told, cleverly constructed and achingly gorgeous, brilliantly blurring the line between theology and cosmology — and giving even the most hardened atheist pause for thought on What Comes After.
On its surface, it’s an adventure in the vacuum of outer space unfolding in almost real time, condensing about three harrowing hours into a taut 90 minutes. The film opens with an epic single shot of a U.S. space shuttle crew out for a spacewalk that lasts for an unbelievable 17 minutes, effectively making you, the audience member, part of the scene.
From the first frame, “Gravity” inexorably pulls you into its beguiling narrative flow, the luminous blue of Earth taking up a third of the screen, dizzily contrasting with the inky blackness of space beyond. Suddenly, a Russian satellite explodes, setting off a chain reaction of hurtling shrapnel that shreds the shuttle and most of her crew like papier-mâché. The only survivors are Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a novice astronaut who can’t get the hang of zero-g, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a saucy, seasoned vet on his last mission before retirement. Their goal: Find a way to get back to Earth.
But saying it like that is like reducing “Jaws” to “three guys chasing a shark.” Through a modest man-(or in this case, woman-) versus-nature conflict, “Gravity” explores some powerful subjects; chiefly, the pain that comes from being a sentient being hardwired with empathy and the capacity for (gulp) love. A recurring motif of birth, where space tethers resemble umbilical cords and characters curl into fetal position in moments of panic, add a visual lyricism and emotional depth to the action.
And speaking of depth, Cuarón’s use of the IMAX format and of 3-D allows the audience to experience the vastness of outer space and the disorientation of moving in a vacuum, where an object that’s more than an arm’s length away is gone forever. He plays with spatial relationships, engaging audiences with the freedom and frustration of being in a resistance-free environment. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki keeps the camera in a perpetual first-person shot, even when one of the characters gets flung into a nauseating head-over-heels cartwheel.
Not since “2001: A Space Odyssey” has a film relied so much on breath to convey the isolation inherent in space travel. Bullock’s performance is deceptively complex, where a slight speed or relaxation in her respiration can change the entire mood of a scene.
After “Jaws” came out, a number of knock-offs came out that pitted people against some kind of killer creature, proudly proclaiming themselves as “’Jaws’ in .” In this case, you couldn’t say “Gravity” is like “’Jaws’ in space”; it would be fairer to say “’Jaws’ IS space.” Never more poetically could an artist say, “The universe is out to kill you,” than Cuarón has done here. Or maybe — just maybe — it’s out to save you.