In space, no one can hear you. Certainly not after a Russian satellite explodes and a mile-wide debris field – whirling and jagged and deadly – pulverizes your space shuttle and scythes through your tether, severing all communication between you and what Carl Sagan called our “pale blue dot.” (There’s nothing pale about the Earth in Cuarón’s film, though; it looms, huge, majestic, and stunningly real in crystal-clear IMAX 3-D.) That’s the dire situation that faces a pair of astronauts assigned to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, 600 kilometers up.
Clooney is Matt Kowalski, the grizzled space veteran on his final mission and Bullock is Dr. Ryan Stone, on her first. Even before calamity befalls them, she’s shaky and queasy when the faceplate of her helmet fogs as she attempts to fix a particularly troublesome bit of errant tech on the Hubble. As she fiddles and frets, the impish Kowalski gleefully spins around her – taking the camera, and the audience with him – as he samples NASA’s newest jet pack. This opening sequence, for which Cuarón, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and their effects team designed a whole multicamera and lighting rig – from scratch – is an eye-popping doozy. It’s worth the price of admission alone, and it rivals Stanley Kubrick’s famed “space ballet” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The chiaroscuro shadow play of sunlight and the absence thereof stuttering across the characters’ faces is hypnotic and unsettling.
As an example of one of the most rarefied genres of filmmaking – the two-character action-drama – Gravity stands above and apart from everything that’s come before. What’s more, Cuarón (Children of Men), writing with his son Jonás, has topped James Cameron’s flawed but vastly underrated deep-sea catastrophe romance, The Abyss, in its existential observation of the human condition in ultimate survival mode. (The two films have more in common than you might think.)
Gravity is a major filmmaking accomplishment, no doubt, although it would have been interesting to see how it might have played sans dialogue. Unthinkable to Hollywood, sure, but still … Kowalski and Stone’s backstories and banter are, in the end, secondary to the film’s jaw-dropping visuals. This is a film spectacular enough to demand the full IMAX 3-D treatment. Anything less would cheapen the experience of Cuarón’s vast and humbling depiction of two souls lost in the void, with no one to hear them but themselves.