Dr. Ryan Stone is not an astronaut, but in the lengthy opening shot of the nerve-frazzling orbital techno-thriller Gravity, she is improbably perched on the Hubble Space Telescope, a few hundred miles above the Earth's surface. A medical engineer by profession, Stone (Sandra Bullock) has recently been fast-tracked through NASA's astronaut training in order to provide hands-on expertise for an invaluable Hubble system upgrade. Although technically savvy, Stone is still a bit wobbly in zero gravity, especially compared to unflappable veteran astronaut and commander of the mission, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). As Stone troubleshoots the satellite, Kowalski lazily circles the space shuttle Explorer in pursuit of the untethered spacewalk record, all while regaling Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris) with his well-worn, locker room anecdotes.
Just as Stone is completing her repairs, an astronautical calamity unfolds. A collision between a Russian rocket and satellite elsewhere in low Earth orbit has generated a cloud of debris moving at fifteen thousand-plus miles per hour and expanding as it demolishes other satellites. (In the real world, this scenario, known as the Kessler syndrome, could potentially cripple modern technology for generations.) In the ensuing devastation, Stone is knocked from the Hubble, sending her hurtling through the void. The level-headed Kowalski attempts to retrieve her, but with worldwide communications pulverized and the space-junk swarm heading back around the Earth in just ninety minutes, Stone's options for survival are severely limited. In the ensuing events—best left for the viewer to experience first-hand—she is forced into a succession of outlandish gambits while yo-yoing about in free fall.
Manifestly a cinematic talent, Mexican writer-director Alfonso Cuarón has nonetheless confounded devotees of auteur theory with his eccentric filmography, which encompasses features as diverse as A Little Princess, Y Tu Mamá También, and Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban. In its dizzying momentum and entropic tone, Cuarón's latest film somewhat resembles his loose 2006 adaptation of P. D. James' dystopian novel, Children of Men. Still, its long-take, high-tension action set pieces notwithstanding, the latter film is downright introspective and elegiac compared to Gravity. The new film is, at bottom, a slick, straightforward Hollywood showcase for the era of seamless CGI wizardry and now-inescapable 3D digital projection.
Gravity blazes past the usual hollow and frivolous blockbuster fare with the power of its almost elemental storytelling. Despite Stone's planetary vantage point, her predicament is stark, her fate distilled to a series of quantities: velocity, distance, temperature, pressure. The story, written by the director and son Jonás Cuarón, buries Stone under a mountain of cascading errors, glitches, and old-fashioned bad luck, yet she somehow manages to wriggle through each lethal swerve. For the viewer, it's a stomach-flopping, white-knuckle experience, with Bullock providing a living focus for the camera's relentless elliptical revolutions. Given that almost every element in Gravity save Bullock and Clooney is computer-generated, Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are given leeway to fuss lovingly over every frame, while simultaneously constraining themselves with a fastidious devotion to scientific realism. There is, pointedly, almost no sound in Gravity's depiction of space travel (save Stone's endless, panicked breathing), allowing composer Stephen Price's fantastically urgent score to fill the resulting lacuna.
As an adrenaline-stoking contraption, Gravity is a resounding achievement, but the success of its more philosophical ambitions are more questionable. The film's spell is occasionally broken by trite dialog regarding the value of hope and resolve, and similar motivational poster pablum. More thoughtful and compelling is Gravity's engagement with the secular search for religious comfort, as well as its admiration of humankind's implacable survival urge. Such concerns provide a modest but welcome cerebral edge to the film's undeniably potent visceral thrills.