In the midst of 90 minutes of breathtaking outer space adventure, Gravity drops an arresting little detail about air locks. At one point, Sandra Bullock's astronaut enters a space station and we can't help but notice that the hatch eschews a high-tech system for a hand crank similar to an old car window. It's as if only a handle and some hardware store parts separate human beings from the airless void.
Gravity moves at such a clip that you may not pay attention to the meticulous research. Children of Men director/co-writer Alfonso Cuarón puts the perils of space travel into starker relief than possibly any film to date. You knew it was dangerous, but not exactly this dangerous.
The action takes place 600 kilometers above the Earth's surface, near the end of an American space mission. Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a medical engineer who normally works in hospitals, but enlisted in NASA to install her invention on a satellite. She's highly accomplished in her own right, but nauseous and uncomfortable with space walks, while veteran pilot Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) proves completely blasé about them.
The spectacular but relatively low-key first section, presented in a seemingly impossible single take, establishes Gravity's nuts-and-bolts realism while including inside jokes from famous space movies. An unseen Ed Harris of Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff provides the voice of Houston's mission control. While everything seems routine, on the other side of the globe the detonation of a Russian satellite sends an unexpectedly deadly debris field hurtling toward our heroes. We learn just how little it takes to rupture a space suit or cripple a shuttle.
Gravity's moments of most intense destruction are like watching the height of human technology tear itself apart. The trailers have crunchy, metal-tearing sound effects, but the film stays true to the fact that sound doesn't carry in space, and the disastrous events can be shockingly unpredictable without familiar auditory cues. Plus, the zero gravity, lack of wind resistance, and other factors mean that the astronauts can get whipped around like rag dolls if they make a wrong move.
Matt comes up with an unlikely survival plan and needs Ryan to rise to the occasion. The film presents Clooney at his most unflappable, and though he's focused and serious, his character takes the accident in stride and describes the other satellites in nearby orbits as if they're old friends.
Gravity essentially takes place from Bullock's point of view, however, and her performance can be problematic. She's older and more seasoned than most actresses we'd normally see in a role like this (Natalie Portman was a contender), which makes Ryan seem more true to life. At the same time, when she talks to herself out of comedic frustration, she seems to be trying too hard to connect with the audience, like she's flashing back to driving the bus in Speed.
Disappointingly, Cuarón, who wrote the film with his son Jonás, gives Bullock the kind of unnecessary backstory that seems more like a concession to screenplay trends than something that genuinely serves the story. The script actually has the line "Ryan, you need to learn to let go," with both literal and metaphorical meanings. Thankfully, despite the emotional ballast, Gravity's spacefaring spectacle never fails to achieve liftoff.