It could’ve been Speed in Outer Space, and not just because of the casting of Sandra Bullock as an astronaut. Instead, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a heart-pounding and hauntingly beautiful meditation—co-written with his son, Jonas Cuarón—that combines the director’s propulsive narrative sense with Terrence Malick’s understanding of the poetry of imagery (the rapturous cinematography is by Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick’s longtime collaborator who also earned an Oscar nomination for Cuarón’s Children of Men). But make no mistake; this is an action movie, albeit one with interludes of white-knuckle tension contrasted with reflective moments of doubt and faith.
Bullock is Ryan Stone, a medical engineer with only six months of flight training. She is in space as part of a shuttle mission supervised by flight commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran space explorer who makes it all look easy. And at first, bouncing around outside the spaceship on a tether does seem easy, like the greatest thrill ride ever invented. While Ryan is having difficulty with an exterior repair, Matt entertains the crew with his jocular banter, via radio transmission, since in space, as explained by the chillingly factual prologue, there is no sound. Within minutes, there is an urgent message from mission command: shrapnel-like debris from a Russian satellite explosion is rocketing toward the module at 50,000 MPH. Ryan is terrifyingly severed from the module, and rescued, by a hair’s-breadth, by Matt. They become, literally, two people who exist only for each other. This ineffable connection is matched by the film’s technical achievements (seemingly without CGI) in creating intensely suspenseful and realistic depictions of the dangers in attempting to maneuver through this inhospitable and unknowable frontier.
Seemingly lost in the infinite, the spaceship is actually in the company of other spacecraft in various states of dysfunction. The loss of communication with mission control (voiced by Ed Harris), indeed, the loss of any kind of control at all, is skillfully incorporated, while the tantalizing nearness of Earth, seen in spectacular visual sequences, keeps the film grounded, and on many levels: The script—which marks Cuaron fils as a major talent—is solidly based on classic tales of adventurers trying to find their way home, and it is from the mesmerizing, watery globe hovering on the horizon that the story takes flight into the realm of the human heart.
This is, simply, Bullock’s best performance ever. Her tomboyish physicality is crucial to the role, as Ryan has to perform precise tasks in zero gravity, usually in a bulky spacesuit, while conveying the knowledge but inadequate practice of an engineer trying to survive nonstop catastrophe. Everything she reaches for is strangely drifting around or hurtling away. Flames dance in the air like soap bubbles.
Clooney wears his maturity brilliantly, and both actors sublimate their characters to the story with a remarkable freedom from ego. Cuarón, the director of the most enchanting Harry Potter installment (The Prisoner of Azkaban) as well as the gritty Children of Men, guides the film beyond familiar cinematic fetters for a voyage that is as moving as it is thrilling.