People like to make fun of Sandra Bullock because she's too perfect or cute. (Re-watch Demolition Man sometime. It debuted 20 years ago and she looks exactly the same. The girl is The Picture of Dorian Gray.) Yet in Gravity Bullock has never been more human.
In the new film directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Contagion), Bullock stars as the rookie astronaut Ryan Stone. She and her fellow astronauts have been floating in space for a week doing technical repairs. It's her first walk and she's nauseous, but the mission will be over in an hour. What could go wrong between now and then? George Clooney plays Mike Kowalski, the veteran on his last mission. He shares provocative personal stories with Houston mission control over the crackling transmission in a competent and collected manner. The conversation remains light, yet no one's forgotten what a delicate, inhospitable environment they're in. It's an important job and they carry it out with reverence.
Then there's the much anticipated accident, the one you know is coming, but already you've grown to like these people and wish somehow it could be prevented. None of us have been in outer space, but we know instinctively to fear it. Bullock becomes untethered and starts spinning into space. All you can hear on the soundtrack is the sound of her breathing inside her space helmet. She says, "I'm detached!" with a panicked professionalism, if that makes any sense. She's thinking, "The worst possible thing that could happen to a person has just happened to me," and we're forced to experience it along with her. Listen in the theater for the people around you gasping for airyou'll hear it.
Much has been made of the film's many technical achievements. The actors' faces were digitally imposed into the suits, which sounds easy enough to do with CGI, but apparently there's an art to getting the light to bounce off their faces just so.
I found myself carried by Bullock's breath. Her oxygen is dangerously low and she's scared. In one particular shot, the camera creeps in on her face slowly, until it circles around in one uninterrupted take and the perspective changes from observing to the observed. We become the astronaut looking out through her helmet into the dark. If you see the film in 3D, computer readings hang in the air in front of you. Usually 3D is a waste of money. It insults our imagination. Do we need every book to be a pop-up? At least here it's working in service of the narrative, but strictly speaking, the story is enough and you don't need it.
If it seems like reviewers are belaboring the technical aspects of the film, it's probably because we don't want to give away the heart of the matter, which is the universal human experience of doing everything you can in the moment to live another day. This is the first mission for Bullock's character, but she's a trained NASA astronaut. Watching a smart, competent woman work her way through a series of technical and physical challenges is delightful in its own right. Early on, we learn she had a daughter who died in an accident. That small detail couldn't be more crucial to her experience, because it makes the temptation of giving up the fight for life and going home just a little sweeter.
It's evident in the scaffolding that Cuaron has set out to make an enduring, classic film. Who knows how it will fare over time, but he's at least succeeded in making one of the best movies of 2013.
Gravity continues at the Carmike 12 and Village 6.