Watching “Gravity,” I was reminded of those motion-room attractions at Disney World and Six Flags, where the audience sits in stationary seats but the room seems to lurch while a screen gives the impression you’re hurtling through the clouds or diving thousands of leagues beneath the sea. In this case we, along with Sandra Bullock’s barely strung-together astronaut, are hurtling through space. We experience space as she does, seeing it through her eyes, the stars separated from us by her visor. Earth spins across it as she spins. Her breath clouds up the glass, then fades. Reflected on it is the red display telling us how little oxygen she has left. As her air dwindles, we feel our own lungs emptying.
Only, a motion-room attraction never felt this immediate. There was no real human stake or fear, not the same way there is here. And it’s hard to think of another film where the breathtaking majesty of something like a sunrise from space did battle with speeding satellite debris, and we felt the emotions from both without contradiction.
Every fall, there’s always one movie that strikes a chord with audiences while still taking risks and moving outside the Hollywood comfort zone. Last year that movie was “Drive.” Now here’s “Gravity,” which by all means shouldn’t exist in modern Hollywood. Alfonso Cuaron’s style doesn’t scream Spielbergian popular thrills, or even the indie-type drama that David O. Russell’s lately banked on. It’s more deliberate, lethargic, filled with excruciatingly long takes and claustrophobic anxieties that might seem like too much for escapist-obsessed America. “Children of Men” is the closest you’ll ever come to experiencing a sci-fi dystopia like you’re in it, all dread and forsaken hope. I don’t know how you’d sell “Y Tu Mama Tambien” to American theatres, and even his “Prisoner of Azkaban” was a little too weird, even by Harry Potter standards (though I’d argue, for that reason, it’s the series’ best).
“Gravity” shouldn’t be any different, since Cuaron’s peculiarities have only intensified. The first eight or nine minutes trap us in a static shot of the Earth. It takes a minute for a space station to float into view, with astronauts Kowalski and Stone, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, engaged in light banter atop it. The camera dances around them, seeming to know exactly where in space to spin. There can’t be a shot in here less than five seconds. Most of them average a cut per every two minutes. Then when the action starts up and debris tears apart their station, untethering Stone and hurling her through zero-g, there’s no wink, no nudge or grinny gesture to assure us that this is all fantasy. How many people could stomach an hour and a half of that?
Yet a surprising amount of people have. “Gravity’s” success – it’s the biggest October opening of all time, possibly the biggest opening for an original, non-sequel story, with a 98 percent on RottenTomatoes – has a lot to do with the performances, all three of them. George Clooney has never had his charm put to such good use. He’s the veteran astronaut who even in crisis seems to know exactly how to act and what balance of humor and confidence to strike. He anchors us without taking away from the terror, the scope of the absence surrounding them, and he’s wisely made a supporting role to Sandra Bullock, who – bless her – has dealt with so much flack and will have to keep dealing with it, as all actresses do who try to make it in non-romance roles. But she’s the Atlas this movie’s charged with carrying itself, and she kills it, absolutely nails the blend of terror and willfulness that her character requires. She captures a lot of what made Sigourney Weaver an icon, the same grit and authenticity that makes her a fleshed-out human being, even if the story has no means to delve into her backstory.
The third performer is space, of course, and it’s made possible by CG and special effects that transcend their labels. CG is too technical, its special effects too mundane for something that feels so natural and yet elevated, this perfect blend of beautiful and ruthless as Alfonso Cuaron’s camera paints only a small fragment of it just beyond our atmosphere. People fear the unknown but they also seek it out. And yes, as Clooney tells us, there’s nothing quite like it. However many ways it can kill us, space is that final frontier to explore and Cuaron sells the hell out of this contradiction, packing it into a tense but gorgeous roller coaster ride.
Does that mean there’s less artistry in “Gravity” than other movies? It’s thrilling and gorgeous and filmmakers will study it for years just to understand the craft, but is being a motion-room ride, even the best one I’ve ever been in, enough? “Gravity” is not without flaws, and you can see the strain as it gives its characters a touch of ethos with a few clunky words of dialogue – in a movie that seems so antithetical to human voice. No sound travels in space. Spaceships are torn apart in silence. We see everything there is to say, and I’m grateful that Cuaron does have something to add beyond expressing the inhuman majesty of space. How, when brought to the brink of death, some find themselves reborn and determined even in the face of an endless abyss. How two humans, even clumsily voiced at times, have a reason to live. Maybe that’s the key, the empathy that an amusement park attraction can never teach us. Maybe after a hollow summer and first half of fall all audiences wanted was to find, after leaving the theatre was that the pain they felt was Sandra Bullock’s pain, and her victories were their victories, and this is a nice little thing to share, stranded in the cosmos.