Review: Sandra Bullock is amazing in Alfonso Cuaron’s dazzling ‘Gravity’

TORONTO – Living at this point in the history of cinema is a privilege, thanks to the way we are able to enjoy movies from any previous era while also seeing how cinema continues to grow and change and adapt, and one might be forgiven for thinking that at this point, we’ve seen it all. It’s not true, though, and the proof this year comes from director Alfonso Cuaron, whose new movie “Gravity,” his first in seven years, seems determined to actually push the visual language of film forward.

Even better? He actually succeeds at that lofty goal.

On the page, “Gravity” is the very definition of simplicity. Two astronauts are working on a space shuttle when they get a warning that a satellite explosion has now created a field of debris that s moving in an incredibly fast orbit around the planet, and that they are in its path. Before they can do anything about it, the debris smashes into their shuttle, utterly destroying it, stranding the two of them in space. The rest of the insanely-tight 88 minute running time is spent trying to figure out how to survive and, if at all possible, make it back to the surface of Earth.

Co-written by Cuaron and his son Jonas, “Gravity” is something of a magic trick. The title page of the script read “A 3D Space Thriller by Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron,” so from the very start, this was designed as an immersive experience more than a conventional narrative, and when I first heard about it, I had a hard time imagining how they would stretch that idea to feature length. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m having a hard time understanding exactly what I saw. It is increasingly rare that I look at an effects-heavy film and don’t know immediately how they did it. With “Gravity,” I’m not even sure what was real and what wasn’t. A small army of visual effects artists worked on the film, and the result is something that feels both hyper-real and yet also dreamlike. Part of that is the way Cuaron stages long, unbroken shots that move through this spacescape, and part of it is the immersive quality of it, working on you almost subconsciously.

Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, and she’s not an experienced NASA veteran. Instead, she’s a specialist who was sent up for a very specific set of experiments, and as we learn eventually, she’s also running from her own painful personal past. There is a case to be made for this as a film about one person’s need to kill off her own persona so she can be reborn as someone stronger, and Cuaron’s imagery makes the subtext feel almost like text. Bullock has never been better than she is here, and I like that Cuaron didn’t try to turn her into an action babe. She is human and vulnerable and damaged in places, and watching her gradually wake up to the truth of her situation and have to choose whether she is going to fight or simply fade away, she nails every single emotional beat perfectly. Clooney is Matt Kowalsky, the experienced guy on his last trip into space, and the only reason Stone has a chance at all of getting back to Earth is because of the practical experience that Kowalsky shares with her.

Emmanuel Lubezki has long been one of the most impressive cinematographers working, and I’d love to talk to him about what his job entailed on a film like this where so much of it appears to exist only as virtual space. It’s remarkable work, and it features one of the most beautiful, rapturous last shots I can remember, thematically significant but also just visceral in the way it hits you. I think special praise has to be heaped on Steven Price, the composer who also wrote the score for Edgar Wright’s “The World’s End” this summer. Since Cuaron stays true to the idea that you don’t hear sound in space, the mayhem is all staged in an eerie silence, and Price’s score works in place of sound effects, creating an emotional barrage that works beautifully. I have a feeling Price is going to be a hot commodity once other filmmakers hear what he’s done for this movie, and he deserves it. It’s a brilliant score.

Overall, I think this is such a personal, almost meditative experience that there’s little more I can say about it without repeating myself or just piling on the hyperbole. Cuaron has always been an interesting director, but with “Gravity,” he seems to have shed the bonds of Earth, and we are fortunate enough to be able to follow him into the unknown.

“Gravity” opens in the US on October 4, 2013. Find the biggest damn IMAX 3D screen you can and buckle up.