When gregarious, gabby astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) asks fellow space-walker Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) what she likes best about space travel, her reply fits her solitary demeanour: "I like the silence."
We like the silence in this film, which mostly takes place about 600 kilometres above Earth. Movies tend to cheat when it comes to sound in the vacuum in outer space, to wit: There is no sound in a vacuum. But that doesn't stop most filmmakers from adding appropriate ka-blammo sound effects when, say, the Death Star explodes.
Director Alfonso Cuarón, who co-wrote this movie with his son Jonás Cuarón, uses silence to enhance the solitude of its heroine, but also to heighten the film's tension.
Instead of a space monster, the terror-in-space here is an exploded Russian satellite. Converted to shrapnel, its chunks of hardware rip around in the same orbit as the space shuttle where Kowalski and Stone toil.
You can't hear it coming. Nor can you hear it destroying stuff outside of your eye-line.
Kowalski is a seasoned pro, and Stone is a newbie barely able to keep her lunch down in zero gravity. When their shuttle suffers catastrophic damage, the two astronauts are obliged to figure out a way to survive by making their way to another orbiting spacecraft, hopefully unscathed by this soundlessly devastating shrapnel storm orbiting Earth.
From that premise, Cuarón constructs a sometimes awe-inspiring dramatic thriller that is, stylistically, a game-changer compared to classic Hollywood narrative. Celebrated for the skill and bravado of his long subjective takes in his film Children of Men, Cuarón here constructs a whole movie that seems to have been made without any edits at all. Like an adventure written as stream-of-consciousness, it registers as one long take as it falls on Bullock's bruised heroine to improvise a journey back to Earth, despite any number of obstacles in her path.
Even in framing most of the film's shots, Gravity appears to have been improvised by ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki without any conventional acknowledgement of "up" and "down." The impressive 3D only adds to the gleeful discombobulation of the film's mise en scène.
But of course, very little of this movie was improvised. It was clearly the product of painstaking planning and virtuoso technical expertise. The fact that it feels as organic as it does is a testament to Cuarón's technical prowess as much as its skilled performances.
The movie's singular let-down is its central character. Bullock comes to the screen with a likability factor that generally compensates for those times when she plays unlikable characters (The Proposal, The Heat). Cuarón especially relies on that dynamic here, because heroine Ryan Stone, tragic backstory notwithstanding, doesn't have much else to make us root for her.
Bullock brings some charm and, yes, gravitas to bear. But one still comes away from Gravity with the feeling this film night have been a classic but for a heroine who fails to capture the imagination to the extent of the film's dire premise. She's Debbie Downer in space.