NASA scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) floats above earth outside her shuttle like a fetus in the womb of space. The ship is her metallic mother; her lifeline is the umbilical cord. She can see her partner in the project, astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who communicates through radio; but Ryan, with her space-suit placenta, is an image of humanity alone among the stars—majestic and vulnerable. An artist as well as an explorer, she mimes a dancer’s slow, graceful tumbling maneuvers. In the Space Odyssey that is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, Ryan is Space Goddessy.
An epic of desperate peril and profound wonder, Gravity provides the same blast of awe that greeted Ang Lee’s Life of Pi last year. Both are thrilling 3-D dramas of survival in a hostile environment, testaments to human grit and groundbreaking technical ingenuity. Like Pi, Gravity deserves to be seen once for the wow factor and a second time to try to figure out how Cuarón and his technical savants managed to make the impossible seem so cinematically plausible. No one dared even to imagine this before, yet here it is, vividly and sumptuously realized.
(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Life of Pi)
Pi, you’ll recall, was alone on a small boat in the stormy Pacific, his only companion a ravenous Bengal tiger. Bullock’s Ryan soon becomes stranded in space—no air, no sound, no connection to Mission Control—with the dreamiest guy in the universe. So it could be worse.
Having served on shuttle flights since 1996, Matt is the bantering veteran, Ryan the novice: old cop, young cop. Earlier, he had transmitted a creepy, Apollo 13 joke: “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” But he also wants to reassure Ryan. “You’re the genius up here,” this Buzz Lightyear tells the Dr. Newbie. “I only drive the bus.” And he hopes she can enjoy the spectacle of being 372 miles above her shimmering home. As he rightly says, “Can’t beat the view.”
(READ: Jeffrey Kluger’s Scientific Fact Check of Gravity)
While Ryan works at fixing a glitch on the space station’s jutting metal arms, a voice back in Houston (Ed Harris, himself a movie astronaut 30 years ago in The Right Stuff) announces, “Mission abort.” Debris from an exploded Russian satellite is headed their way, and as bright chunks fly past, Matt still jokes, “Half of North America just lost their Facebook.” The laughter turns to terror when the rest of Matt and Ryan’s crew is killed. The space-station arm jerks lose, and Ryan spins wildly around, finally catching Matt’s arm. Now they are tethered in a literally death-defying Cirque du Soleil bungee routine. They have lost contact with Mission Control as well as access to their oxygen supply. They’re alone together, with time and options running out.
This amazing 13-minute sequence at the very beginning of Gravity is shown as a single shot. To say this is a marvel of camerabatics, of choreography and animation, is to undersell both the athletic and behavioral dexterity of Clooney and Bullock, who worked on wires in front of a green screen, and the artistry of Cuarón’s enablers, led by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (a veteran of four other Cuarón features) and visual-effects wizard Tim Webber. The opening sequence is the most eye-catching, but keep watch for two other 10-minute-plus shots; all three of these bravura scenes use visual elements created over several years. As the director told Entertainment Weekly’s Jess Cagle, “Each single bit of film is a different technology.”
(SEE: The Gravity trailer, with a section of the opening sequence)
Beyond technology, Cuarón plays daringly and dexterously with point of view: at one moment you’re inside Ryan’s helmet as she surveys the bleak silence; then in a subtle shift, you’re outside to gauge her reaction. The 3-D effects, added in postproduction, provide their own extraterrestrial startle: a hailstorm of debris hurtles at you. In sheer storytelling terms, Cuarón is the bedtime spellbinder who takes the child inside every moviegoer on a nail-gnawing spaceflight and into a space traveler’s dread at feeling alone in the universe.
In the Mexican director’s globe-trotting filmography (A Little Princess, Great Expectations, Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men), the film frame is usually crowded with agitated bodies. Gravity goes the other way, stripping movie drama to its essential: solitary figures in mortal distress. In this it resembles Life of Pi and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost (showing next week at the New York Film Festival before opening in theaters Oct. 18), which manages the audacious narrative trick of stranding sailor Robert Redford with neither words nor backstory. These are stories of self-reliance, of finding ways to survive and a reason to live.
(READ: Mary Corliss’s review of All Is Lost)
(WARNING: ENTERING EXTREMELY-OBLIQUE-SPOILER ZONE) When Ryan reaches a Russian space station and sheds her astronaut gear until she’s down to Ripley’s undies in Alien, she completes the metaphor of the first scenes—slowly revolving, eyes closed, she assumes the fetal position: a child waiting to be born or die. At the end of the movie, an ancient astronaut emerges from the sea, as if to recapitulate the evolution of humankind from sea creature. (END OF TORTUOUSLY VEILED SPOILER.)
Some movies take forever to make. Gravity, which Cuarón wrote with his son Jonás, got going soon after the director finished Children of Men in 2006 and went through two studios and more than a dozen actors for the main roles. Robert Downey Jr., was set to play Matt but dropped out in 2011, allowing Clooney to bring his nonpareil charm, bravado and maturity to the role. Cuarón offered the Ryan part to Angelina Jolie, twice, and then to Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lopez, Rachel Weisz, Marion Cotillard, Carey Mulligan, Blake Lively, Scarlett Johansson, Olivia Wilde—everybody. When these actresses see what Bullock has been given in the role and the fiery commitment she invests in it, they should all whisper a sincere, Rick Perry–style “oops.”
Making his first digital movie after a career using film—remember when movies were films?—Cuarón has propelled the ascent of serious entertainment into the technological stratosphere. It continues the arc of Avatar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Life of Pi, each outdoing its predecessor in the filmmaker’s eternal quest to astonish us, each blending digital technology and human artistry. In depicting the fearful, beautiful reality of the space world above our world, Gravity reveals the glory of cinema’s future; it thrills on so many levels. And because Cuarón is a movie visionary of the highest order, you truly can’t beat the view.