The trend toward exhibiting nearly everything in 3D on gigantic screens has created far more headaches than masterpieces. James Cameron's “Avatar” showed the value of the technique, despite the movie's so-so script. A few other films — Martin Scorsese's “Hugo” and Werner Herzog's “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” among them — made it seem passingly worthwhile. Now along comes Alfonso Cuaron's “Gravity,” which matches Cameron's technical achievement and is better written. It may be the best 3D film to date.
The story is neither new nor startling: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play Stone and Kowalski, two American astronauts who find themselves drifting in space after their ship is damaged. Much the same tale was told in John Sturges' 1969 “Marooned” and doubtless some others. Nor would the script seem brilliant on paper. The dialogue is almost all technical with little bits of personal emotion thrown in. The latter material helps draw us into the characters, but is the weakest element in the project.
We meet the two, and one other short-lived astronaut, as they float outside the shuttle that serves as their extraterrestrial home base, making a minor repair. Suddenly mission control warns them to get back inside: A satellite has exploded, sending debris hurtling through their hardware-crowded orbital level. Worse yet, this debris has already struck other satellites in a sort of chain reaction, so they are likely to be bombarded repeatedly. In addition, the destruction of all this human space tech means that they no longer have any radio contact with mission control.
Kowalski is an old hand at space flight, unflappable even by such a catastrophe, and continues to crack wise, as they float, tethered together, trying to save their lives. Stone, a medical researcher on her first space mission, is understandably freaking out, and for a significant portion of the movie, nearly all of the dialogue comprises their electronic conversations, as Kowalski simultaneous strategizes and attempts to keep Stone focused.
To say much more would constitute a spoiler: Let's just stipulate that some of the steps they take end in disappointment, complicating things considerably. The movie unfolds in something close to real time, hope ticking away as their oxygen and other necessities grow scarce.
Clooney more or less plays himself, or our image of him. Stone is a more educated version of Bullock's star-making role in “Speed” — someone who is ill-prepared for the challenges she has to confront but must suck it up and vanquish them nonetheless.
It can be argued that the screenplay, cowritten by director Cuaron and his brother Jonas, while flawlessly worked out, is also no more than serviceable. The magic is in the execution. The opening scenes are gorgeous, as Stone, Kowalski and their ship quietly float between the vastness of space and the familiar face of the earth, which represents home and also comes to represent a formidable threat: If they should be so lucky as to find a way back, how will they enter the atmosphere and touch down without burning up or being smashed on impact?
From the moment things go bad to the last shots in the film, Cuaron keeps us about as tense as a body can stand. Throughout, I was crouched forward in my seat, nervously fiddling in between instances of Cuaron jerking my emotional and physical strings like a master puppeteer.
This is, above all, a great suspense film. Despite the meaning of the title, it has little that is heavy or profound. “Gravity” is merely a ride — but, oh, what a ride! Cuaron adds another triumph to his extraordinary filmography, which includes “A Little Princess,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” and “Children of Men.” He has given us the first film since “Avatar” that really demands to be seen in 3D in IMAX, or at least on the biggest possible screen.