Review

A Beacon of Originality in an Empty Cosmos of Contemporary Cinema

In 'Gravity,' director Alfonso Cuaron seems to have wanted not just to reduce science-fiction cinema to its most basic elements, but to purify it.

“In space no one can hear you scream,” declared a clever tagline on the poster for Ridley Scott’s “Alien” in 1979. In Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” not only screams go unheard; in fact, the few shouts heard in the movie are brief and muffled by the astronauts’ protective gear. It is human existence itself that finds itself disconnected from everything it knows, including the ability − both real and symbolic − to rest your feet on firm ground. The physical and vocal disconnection are absolute; the solitude is total.

Many times in recent years, as I sat, disappointed and frustrated, watching one of the many high-budget, effect-laden science-fiction movies flooding our screens, I wished that a good director would make a film in this genre again. Now one has. Cuaron, whose list of credits to date includes “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Children of Men” and the best of the Harry Potter movies, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” has taken the genre and distilled it to a work at once simple and complex, a sweeping adventure that is also an existential allegory. Above all, “Gravity” is a work whose originality, boldness and skill shine like a beacon in the darkness of contemporary popular filmmaking.

The fact that “Gravity” has become a mega-hit may be the most encouraging bit of movie news in recent years; had I seen it before its release, I would have predicted that the film would enjoy a modest economic success at best, despite the presence of two such major stars as Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Somewhere out there, in the vast reaches of the international movie-going audience, there is intelligent life that is able to appreciate this kind of movie and reward it generously.

“Gravity” has no monsters, no intergalactic battles, no futuristic vision of a new social order formed in the wake of some catastrophe. It is set in the present. The screenplay, which Cuaron co-wrote with his son, Jonas Cuaron, is almost minimalist. A 13-minute shot that opens the movie floats around two astronauts working outside an American spacecraft to repair it: Clooney’s veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, and Bullocks’ Ryan Stone, a scientist on her first space mission.

These are the only two figures we’ll see in the course of the movie, for a while we will also hear the voices coming from Mission Control in Houston and catch a brief glimpse of another astronaut. “Gravity” is largely a movie for two actors only, their familiar faces often obscured by their space gear. I mention this in order to stress that even the way Cuaron uses his two stars is bold and original: The movie both relies on their celebrity presence and represses it.

The first bad omens arrive as reports from Houston that pieces of an aborted Russian satellite are hurtling towards the American spacecraft. The odds of a collision are small, the voices from Earth reassure the astronauts, but they are wrong: The satellite fragments hit the spacecraft, destroy it, and cut Ryan and Matt loose. Their mission is now to use their dwindling oxygen reserves to get to an abandoned Russian space station not far from there, and then to return to Earth.

In “Gravity” Cuaron seems to have wanted not just to reduce science-fiction cinema to its most basic elements, but to purify it. The movie lasts only 91 condensed minutes, very short for a sci-fi picture today. On its basic level, this is a thriller that follows Ryan and Matt as they struggle to reach their destination. Much of the movie focuses on the technological sides of their efforts to survive; almost immediately, however, the action of the movie becomes filled with a meaning that elevates it to the symbolic level, which − as in the best sci-fi movies, such as “Alien” and Kubrick’s “2001: Space Odyssey” − has to do with pregnancy, childbirth and death.

It is no accident, therefore, that like the “Alien” movies, “Gravity” has a woman at its center. Ryan is the primary heroine, and Matt − though he has an important role − is ultimately secondary to her. Images of unborn babies and umbilical cords are delicately woven into the movie, which can as a whole be described as depicting the rebirth of a woman − a possibility that the lovely, poignant ending only strengthens.

What makes “Gravity” so wise and powerful is that this symbolic level is not applied to it heavily, but rather woven into the fabric of the film in an intelligent, sensitive way, so that the movie’s allegorical level, rather than weighing it down, enriches the result until it has a distinctly poetic essence.

Cuaron puts the film’s various elements to fine use: the tension between sound and silence, between light and darkness, and between the dimness of space, through which the two characters move, and the lit Earth seen from afar − a symbol for Ryan and Matt’s coveted destination. Cuaron is helped in this by the excellent cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose work we have seen in Cuaron’s “Children of Men” and in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” The musical score is also employed in an intelligent, well-balanced way.

I am not sure Ryan needed a back story that connects to the movie’s themes; her character would have worked well without it and her occasional need to voice her thoughts seems contrived. But these are minor flaws that do not compromise the overall experience. George Clooney does his job with a modesty appropriate to his character’s place in the overall scheme of things, but “Gravity” belongs primarily to Sanda Bullock, whose steady Everywoman presence gives the movie’s existential allegory much of its heft. “Gravity” offers a succinct, purified version not only of the science-fiction genre but of Bullock’s cumulative screen persona. Together, these two elements combine to form a cinematic work that is already certain to inscribe itself in the memory of the genre and of American popular filmmaking as a whole.

Warner Bros. Pictures / AP
Warner Bros. Pictures / AP