‘Gravity’ stuns with visceral yet unsettling experience

Ever since his highly acclaimed “Children of Men” (2006), audiences have eagerly waited for another Alfonso Cuar?n film. His most recent release, “Gravity” – complete with a spectacular unbroken 17-minute opening shot – will elate viewers, taking them through an adventure in space.

In the past, Cuar?n has experimented with many different genres, but he seems to be settling into one he seems most comfortable with: science fiction. His earlier works, including “Great Expectations” (1998) and “Y Tu Mam? Tambi?n” (2001), featured more low-key romantic plots. In 2004, he was selected to direct the third installment of the “Harry Potter” franchise, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” to which he added his own vision – making it one of the darkest films in the series and, arguably, one of the best. Later, he developed a taste for action and adventure, moving on to direct the fast-paced “Children of Men” (2006). He has now embarked on a new mission to create one of the best depictions of space since 1968’s epic “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Despite all the scientific and technological progress in the past 20 years, the space movie genre has remained largely untapped. Sure, “Apollo 13” (1995) was fun, but the film failed to evoke that sense of that isolation viewers should feel when watching space scenes – the movie simply cut back to the ground too frequently. In “Gravity,” however, the audience really does feel trapped and alone in the infinite expanse of space. Watching the film is a totally visceral experience – one that is completely unsettling.

Though Cuar?n, who both wrote and directed the film, has captured this atmosphere perfectly, there is not much depth when it comes to plot. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space mission after a hasty training, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut on his last mission, are in space when debris starts careening towards them. The debris cuts them off from their spaceship, and they are forced to find a way to survive for all of 90 minutes. Thankfully, the experience of being in space with these characters is enough to keep the audience engaged, but one can’t help but feel a bit cheated. Amid the beauty of the film, the narrative itself seems to be just an afterthought. It’s a lazy reason to set the movie in space, as if Cuar?n had the concept and just needed a reason for it to happen.

The casting choices also seem a little strange. Cuar?n could have showcased the talents of lesser-known actors, yet he chose to cast big name stars like Clooney and Bullock. There are no complaints to be made about Bullock’s performance – except that the absurdity of seeing the actress, known for her other less serious roles, in space is somewhat distracting. Bullock’s acting, however, compensates for this. At times, the audience was holding their breath alongside her, nearly gasping for air when some of her sequences were over. There were moments when the theater was filled only with the audience’s heavy breathing, fighting the deadening silence of space.

“Gravity” is a terrifying film for anyone afraid of wide-open spaces or isolation, as well as anyone who is claustrophobic, gets dizzy easily or hates silence. Ultimately, though, it is an exhilarating experience – something like riding a slower version of Space Mountain at Disneyland – and to simply describe it would not do it any justice. Despite a lacking plot, and even if viewers find the story gimmicky, this film will be remembered for years to come. “Gravity” is an important new leaf in the science fiction genre, setting a high bar for future cinematic ventures into space. This is truly 2013’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”