Recall that moment in Children of Men–and if you haven’t seen it, I highly suggest that you do so immediately–where Clive Owen is running through a burning apartment building in order to save a young mother from the militants and soldiers engaged in combat, and the tenants crowd and fill the frame as Owen attempts to navigate through them–all of this is done in a single-take: long, complex moments of story and action told without the use of editing to force the audience’s gaze onto a specific subject. This is Gravity in a nutshell: a collection of long-takes that makes us feel more like passive viewers rather than intrusive voyeurs. The opening of Gravity begins with an extravagant opening shot that lasts around 17 minutes. It moves the focus from the shuttle Explorer to our two main characters, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). The film is able to relay all the information that we need all in one shot: who these characters are, and, of course, the impending sense of peril that will soon come upon them.
Through Cuaron’s gentle guiding, we’re allowed to completely take in the beauty of space. A stunning shot of the earth and the Explorer hovering above is quite breath-taking, and like the astronauts who float and glide in zero gravity, it feels as if we too are floating in space. But just as we see that space can be filled with romance, we’re reminded that it’s dangerous too. Gravity routinely touches upon the horrifying feeling that anything could go wrong, leaving you stranded to die a miserable and lonely death in the cold depths of space. And sure enough, things go bad as debris collides with the Explorer and leaves both Kowalski and Ryan stranded in space.
As well-shot as Gravity is, it wouldn’t mean much more than a really good (yet extremely long) special-effects reel if it didn’t have something to anchor the effects to. This is where George Clooney and Sandra Bullock come in and they do more than enough to provide that human element. The script, written by Cuaron and his son Jonas keeps it simple. Needless amounts of exposition would only serve to bog down the experience, so the narrative indulges in a series of well-used tropes: Clooney is the well-humored veteran who is on one final mission, and Bullock is the rookie who quietly suffers from a traumatic past. They’re certainly stereotypes meant for audiences to immediately recognize and sympathize with, but the actors are compelling, particularly Bullock who is the real main star of Gravity. Sandra Bullocks’ involvement may leave some viewers hesitant over her performance, but here she is absolutely phenomenal. As Ryan Stone, we see the world through her–and often through her own eyes–as things go from bad to worse. The shuttle is destroyed and Stone is sent drifting in space, and we’re along for the ride. It’s a horrifying, and dizzying, experience as Bullock flails through space debris, fires, broken satellites, and whatever else the film gleefully throws at her for our entertainment; but Bullock is game, crafting a resilient character that immediately brings to mind Ripley from the Alien franchise–a strong female character trying to make the best out of an increasingly bad situation. Ryan is a character you can root for and as the stakes got ridiculously, almost exhaustingly, high, I desperately wanted her to survive this experience.
Gravity is a visual powerhouse, putting other so-called blockbusters to shame with its gorgeous cinematography, and its absolutely terrifying depiction of space. I walked out of that theater feeling that I’ve seen something that I’ve never quite seen before. Gravity may be more ride than film, but dammit–I can’t wait to get on again.