It's sometimes said of Steven Spielberg that he was the first director to compose without the thought of a proscenium arch. The exciting new film Gravity, by Alfonso Cuarón, seems like the first film composed without thought of the walls or ceiling. It's clear that you're watching a classic—lavish with effects, and yet brutally economical.
Gravity begins far above earth, with some studious blandness; George Clooney's crumbly, comforting voice droning happily as two assistants repair the Hubble telescope. While he's sweetening up the physician Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a news flash: an unmanned Russian rocket has hit a satellite, knocking out communications. Like the first pieces of falling scree indicating the avalanche to come, a spray of debris comes toward them very fast. Very shortly—the film unfolds in real time, in 90 blessed minutes—the survivors are floating without a ride home and little oxygen.
It's frightening, this gradual building of trouble: the scrabbling at tools that have a mind of their own, with the sausage-fingered gloves of a space suit; the problem of trying to do something gymnastic when pulled in the wrong direction and while wearing a slippery, too-fragile suit. And then there's the minor problem of reading a control panel written in Mandarin. What we see is solidly, masterfully composed, not the aimless whirling of hyperfast cutting. There always seems to be an axle on Cuarón's spinning wheel.
We see what infinity looks like—we see into it, straight through the skull of a martyred astronaut—so the mention of prayer to appease this horrible void seems particularly weak. Bullock—with her floating, beautifully made frame, graceful yet gawky—has a line about how "No one ever taught me to pray." Her character is from a small Illinois town, too—where do you hide from people trying to teach you just that?
But all that second-guessing comes later. Most viewers will be too busy kissing the ground when it's over.
'Gravity' opens in wide release on Friday, Oct. 4.