Dorothy had it easy. When she at last understood she wanted to go home, all she had to do was click her heels and say the words. But when Sandra Bullock makes up her mind to go home in Alfonso Cuarón’s entirely amazing Gravity, she can’t get there unless she’s willing to somersault through the void, bounce repeatedly off large metal objects, swim through fire, consult technical manuals in Russian and Chinese (languages her character doesn’t read) and, not least, master her death wish. “What now?” she yells at one point, in a tone midway between exasperation and terror, as the latest of her challenges (many of which are razor-sharp) come zooming out of an indifferent cosmos. This is what a medical engineer turned rookie astronaut may expect when she’s stranded above Earth without a spaceship: a very bad four or five hours of plot time. The audience, though, may experience Bullock’s struggles in Gravity another way: as the occasion for ninety minutes of pure exhilaration.
It all depends on how strongly you respond to the way motion pictures move. Although the plot of Gravity presents the ultimate case of existential dread, and a harsh lesson in the economics of being alone in the universe (only so much oxygen to budget, only so much time), the style revels in overabundance, having joyfully left behind all constraints. Cuarón is now leading the post-graduate fellowship program of the look-ma-no-hands school of filmmaking; and in case any of the moms out there are inattentive, he cues them through the characters to notice that wonders are being worked.
As Gravity begins, with the shuttle Explorer orbiting gradually into sight, Bullock’s character (improbably called Ryan Stone) is bent none too happily over a task outside the capsule, her eyes fixed on the piece of equipment in front of her, while around her two crewmates who enjoy taking the longer view are at play. Shariff (Phaldut Sharma), who is tied to the Explorer’s frame by a long cord, has made himself into a human tether ball and is whipping around while shouting “Whee!” Kowalski (George Clooney), who is of course the cocky but comfortingly reliable veteran, has cut loose completely from the ship and is performing acrobatics with the help of a jet pack. You might think of Cuarón’s camera as an unseen fourth person moving among these characters and sharing their happier moods. It joins in Shariff’s rapture at being freed from the struggle to bear weight; it emulates Kowalski’s lighthearted professionalism in always choosing the right thing to do, when it seems as if anything at all could be done.
While you lose track of the compass points and the passage of time, the camera in this endless, seamless first scene dives and darts around and under and through the superstructure of the Explorer, coasts up to and over and past the characters, slips smoothly from outside Bullock’s helmet to inside for a point-of-view shot and without a single evident cut keeps circling the objects in motion, all the while being circled by them. You could say, without abusing the term, that you are witnessing a revolution. It’s the overthrow of your normal understanding of how films are put together, effected by the conspiracy of Cuarón, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Timothy Webber by evoking the abandonment in outer space of your normal physical senses. You know, for example, that if George Clooney floats out of sight on the left side of the frame, he is not supposed to float back into the same shot from the right. That’s a fundamental convention of moviemaking, based on the sort of real-world experience that tells you that Earth should be below Clooney’s feet and not above his head, and certainly never in both positions at almost the same time. Say goodbye to convention; so long, quotidian up and down. You may think you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick explore the systematic derangement of all the senses in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Gravity now makes that film seem like an exercise in fixed-camera sobriety.