We’ve Got a Floater: When an astronaut’s shuttle is destroyed, she’s left drifting around space.
We’ve Got a Floater: When an astronaut’s shuttle is destroyed, she’s left drifting around space.

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Most human beings will live the entirety of their lives with both feet firmly planted on this planet, never venturing into the unknowable expanse of outer space. The closest they may ever get—and to this Earth-tethered critic, it feels pretty darn close—is a trip to see Gravity, a spectacle that capitalizes on every available cinematic tool in its depiction of a novice astronaut’s attempt to escape the celestial void. If a movie’s core mission is to transport us to places we’ve never been, then Gravity does what a movie is supposed to do, more thoroughly and thrillingly than any motion picture in recent memory.

Alfonso Cuarón, a director who established himself with films like Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men, immediately hurtles his audience into the blackness between the stars, where Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer, is checking on an apparatus located on the exterior of a floating NASA shuttle. It’s her first mission, so she’s focused, but still woozy from the weightlessness. “Don’t be anxious,” suggests one of her two team members. “That is not good for the heart.”

That advice is meant for her, but could just as easily help anyone sitting in the theater. Gravity’s heart attack-inducing moments come quickly, in the form of flying missile debris that destroys Stone’s shuttle and sends her spiraling off into the solar system, where she must find a way back to veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), then figure out how to propel toward a space station in nearby orbit.

With knock-out digital effects and stunning 3D, Cuarón and his team masterfully capture the depth of the infinite maw that Bullock’s Ryan and Clooney’s Matt must confront. Repeatedly inverting our view of Earth and playing with those multiple dimensions to lob space detritus directly into our faces, Gravity forces us to share in their struggle as they attempt to grasp onto anyone or anything that can anchor them.

While the visual may provide the most obvious wow factor here, what this film does with sound—in Bullock’s panicky gasps of breath and the swells of Steven Price’s often nerve-jangling score—is no less extraordinary. Gravity can rightly be called a thriller; during most of its 91 minutes, it’s a wrenching experience. But it also contains moments that are sublime in their meditative silence. Even alone and suspended in nothingness, it is possible for our protagonists to find cocoons of quiet comfort, to experience a peace in outer space that feels almost like something holy.

This may be a massive, IMAXified, effects-driven epic, but it’s one that would be far less effective without the understated performances of its two leads. As the confident, chipper Matt, Clooney is all casual charisma and comic relief, essentially playing an astronaut version of the irresistible Doug Ross from his E.R. days. It’s true that this part isn’t a stretch for him, and it’s also true that it doesn’t matter. He’s damn good at what he does here, providing a welcome distraction from the movie’s relentless intensity. In space, no one can hear you scream, but it’s still possible to see the mischievous twinkle in Clooney’s eye, even through the dome of a space helmet.

Ultimately, though, this is Bullock’s film and she commands it, veering from petrified to remarkably assured, then back to shattered again. Ryan has lost much, and she’s apparently opted to escape into space because it seemed like a better alternative to slogging through her days back in Illinois. “The silence,” she tells Matt, when he asks what she likes about her NASA gig. “I could get used to it.”

Bullock, as always, is relatable, but in a more vulnerable way than much of her previous work has permitted her to be. Through every gulp of oxygen, every dangerous drift farther away from her homeland, and every agonizing stretch toward a vessel that could carry her toward safety, the actress makes us root for her and root hard. So while Gravity presents a great big galaxy that is both terrifying and humbling, what makes us care about the goings-on in space is the fact that we just want to see Ryan’s feet finally affixed to Earth’s surface, where they ought to be.