What’s the most lost a person can be? Even in the middle of a desert or adrift in an ocean, you stand a chance, however remote, of being rescued. But space? There you’re on your own. With “Gravity,” it’s as if director Alfonso Cuarón and his son and co-writer Jonás racked their brains to come up with a peril so extreme it becomes nearly existential — a lone human being floating tiny and untethered in the boundless vault of outer space. And then they put America’s Sweetheart in the astronaut suit.
She’s not entirely on her own: Every so often George Clooney zips by on a sputtering rocket pack. But “Gravity” is primarily Sandra Bullock’s show in front of the camera and Cuarón’s show behind it. After movies as varied as “Y Tu Mamá También,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and the brilliant “Children of Men,” it appears there’s nothing Cuarón can’t do. Now he has made an astonishingly detailed, visually painstaking state-of-the-art production that advances what the cinema can show us — even as the human story at its center feels a little thin after a while.
The setup is as simple as it is terrifying. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a scientist who, when “Gravity” opens, is on a space walk tending to the Hubble Space Telescope 370 miles out in lower Earth orbit. She’s accompanied by a fellow academic (Phaldut Sharma) and mission leader Matt Kowalski (Clooney), a wry veteran astronaut on his final tour. After the Russians destroy one of their aging satellites, things happen very quickly: An unintended chain reaction results in a storm of metallic debris whipping around Earth and taking out everything in its path.
The most nerve-racking aspect of this catastrophe is its silence — millions of dollars of advanced technology, comsats, entire space stations, all ripping apart in a noiseless ballet. Stone, who’s established early on as something of a scaredy-cat, is cut free and Cuarón’s camera stays with her, inside and outside her helmet, as she spins through the void, fighting off immediate panic and then giving in to a greater one. How can anyone expect to find a needle this small in a haystack this infinite?
I don’t want to spoil anything, but there really isn’t much in “Gravity” to spoil. Stone and Kowalski have to find a way home and the plot is their struggle to do so. At regular intervals, that debris field comes crashing around again, bigger than the last time, and so the film’s suspense is both linear and orbital. Cuarón envisions an impossible situation and then tries to find a possible way out of it.
You may come away more dazzled by the vision (and by Emmanuel Lubezki’s visionary cinematography) than by the way out. “Gravity” is an eminently satisfying night at the movies — if you can see it in 3-D IMAX, do so, since you’ll feel even more convincingly marooned on a cosmic stage — but as the film leapfrogs from one deserted space station to the next, it becomes a straightforward chain of obstacles to confront and surmount. You miss the twists a more complex story line might have, not to mention the human interaction it might involve.
But that’s partly what the movie’s after: what it’s like to be profoundly alone in the universe. “Gravity” increasingly concentrates on Bullock’s Stone, who’s on her own in life and has to get past her (surprisingly girly) haplessness to face the task at hand. That inspirational arc — How Ryan Got Her Groove Back — is the movie’s most pat aspect, but is there any other star who could play to it without playing down to it? Given the absurdly difficult technical requirements, Bullock’s performance is affectingly uncluttered and direct.
In one scene, after she has narrowly escaped certain death once again, the heroine floats motionless in a space pod, letting weightlessness curl her into a fetal ball. Shooting from a slight distance, Cuarón knowingly evokes the Starchild in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” just as he knowingly evokes our distance from that classic’s trippy-utopian depiction of Life Out There. The outer space of “Gravity” is filled with space junk, the radio (when it’s working) alive with the chatter of our species. When the communications satellites get knocked out, Kowalski wisecracks, “Half of North America just lost its Facebook.”
Yet the film’s also extraordinarily beautiful in its vision of a much larger universe than those Facebook users can imagine, and it’s slyly honest about our insignificance within it. (That’s what makes the ending both awe-inspiring and far-fetched.) Even when Stone is struggling to read the manual of a Chinese space station — Ping-Pong paddles floating just beyond her field of vision — the immense orb of Earth is still out there, mockingly turning toward sunrise against a sea of cold, hard stars. “Gravity” gives us enough of the big picture to make us realize how little of it we truly comprehend.