Some movies are so tense and deeply affecting that they shave years off your life as you're watching, only to give back that lost time, and more, at the end. Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is one of those movies.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts — one a medical engineer, the other, as he puts it, the guy who "drives the bus" — who find themselves adrift in space, cut off from all (or almost all) Earth communication. This is Cuarón's first movie since his stunning dystopian fantasy Children of Men, from 2006, and his first in 3D. After several years of 3D pointlessness, I'm thoroughly sick of the format, and you may be, too. But instead of attempting to make us believe 3D is a new language, Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use it simply to expand the emotional vocabulary of filmmaking, to explore both wonder and the thing that makes wonder possible: despair. Forget stretched-out blue people, Peter Max–colored flora and fauna, and explosions comin' at ya: To see Clooney and Bullock floating and circling one another, nearly drifting into oblivion only to be reeled back, all captured in takes so long it's as if Cuarón's camera can't bring itself to look away — this is what 3D was made for.
Gravity is remarkable because it's both a spectacle and a platform for its actors, especially Bullock. Cuarón has some fun with stock 3D effects: Wrenches, bolts, fountain pens, a little Marvin the Martian figurine complete with scrub-brushy helmet all float by at some point in that optical neverland between the screen and our fingertips. As astronauts Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski, Bullock and Clooney float, too, but it's a different and generally more marvelous thing. In the early moments, the duo have left the comfort of their space station: She's intent on installing a very important whatchamacallit into a thingie — doing so successfully will give her a chance at better funding for her research back home. He, on the other hand, is just fooling around, trying out a new jet pack — he resembles a toy, a human Buzz Lightyear who, thanks to NASA technology, really can fly. While Stone sweats, perhaps literally — she's not feeling well on this particular day — Kowalski busies himself with being a goofball, entertaining ground control in Houston with tall tales and general waggery. (The voice you hear from the home planet belongs to Ed Harris, who played John Glenn better than anyone else could have in Philip Kaufman's superb adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff.) The setup makes sense: Clooney is the clown, Bullock is the grind. It's a match made in heaven, or at least the heavens.
What follows is a romance, with elements of romantic comedy and dream logic mixed in. If Clooney's is the encouraging voice you want to hear when you're trapped in the vast nowhere of space, Bullock's face is the one you want to see. An early scene shows her drifting farther and farther from everything she knows, tetherless, possibly losing oxygen. She's terrified but also astonished at what might be happening to her, and she has never looked more beautiful — Lubezki renders her skin as luminous as platinum. Even the sound of her breathing, strained and intensified, draws us close to her.
For all the dazzling technique, this really is Bullock's movie. Stone continues to talk even after contact with home has been lost: Kowalski has reminded her that even though she can't hear Houston, Houston may be able to hear her, which is as apt and unsentimental a metaphor for prayer as I can think of. And so she takes us, if not some unseen and unheard God, into her confidence with her soliloquies — we might be the last human beings to hear them, but Bullock treats them like casual conversation. She's the perfect opposite of a grand dame actress: Instead of making pronouncements, she strives to connect.
Gravity is both lyrical and terrifying, and sometimes Cuarón merges the two, sending us into free fall along with his characters. In Gravity's vision of space, all the whites are whiter and the darknesses darker: From the astronauts' point of view, the world looks like a kind of sky, a bright bowl of day turned upside-down over night.
No space movie arises from a vacuum, and while there may be a mad rush to compare Gravity with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cuarón's vision is a world apart from Kubrick's. Kubrick approached space with a cool, confident master plan; Cuarón proceeds with awe. Gravity has more in common with The Right Stuff and Brian De Palma's sorely underloved Mission to Mars. The Right Stuff isn't so much about space as about the space program, and Cuarón — who co-wrote the script with Jonás Cuarón, his son — likewise captures the mingling of duty and curiosity that motivates human beings to leave the Earth's atmosphere.
Gravity is harrowing and comforting, intimate and glorious, the kind of movie that makes you feel more connected to the world rather than less. In space, no one can hear you scream. But a whole audience can hear you breathe. And that is a wondrous thing.