Gravity is, quite possibly, the tensest film I’ve ever seen, and is one of the most profound combinations of imagery and music (chronologically) since the Star Wars films and Koyaanisqatsi, and only eclipsed by Mad Max: Fury Road.
The film is based around a concept called “Kessler Syndrome”, which may be familiar to viewers of the anime series Planetes. The idea is the threat of a “cascade” of space debris caused by one group of space debris hitting a larger object, creating more debris, hitting more objects creating more debris and on and on until you have basically an orbital band that spacecraft cannot necessarily pass through safely.
In the case of this film, this occurs when a Russian satellite is scuttled by a missile, creating this cloud of debris while a shuttle mission is in orbit. On this shuttle mission is Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who is on her first mission, while Lt. Matthew Kowalski (George Clooney), who is her de-facto mentor figure, is on his last mission before retirement. When the shuttle is hit by the debris, Kowalski and Stone are the last two survivors, and have to figure out how to get back to earth after the Shuttle is catastrophically damaged by the debris.
If my description of Kowalski rings any death bells (mentor figure, and on the brink of retirement), that’s not too far off base. The majority of the characters of the film other than Stone are fairly under-written. The focus of the film is on Stone and her character arc, as she goes through this horrific situation, and after Kowalski dies early in the film, ultimately has to make it entirely on her own, based on her knowledge, strength of will, and ingenuity.
The film’s score is incredibly tense. Stephen Price’s score really keeps the audience on edge through the majority of the film, eschewing traditional themes or melodic emotional structures (or even the now traditional thematic atonalism that Ennio Morricone used in The Thing and was later popularized by The X-Files). The music keeps the audience on edge and makes sure that we know that no matter what, Stone, and thus the audience, is not out of the woods.
Similarly, the composition of the shots in this film is fantastic. Director Alfonso Cuarón and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki keep the camera moving, keeping the tension up as Stone also has to keep moving, in turn allowing the scenes to provide information about the crews of the stations they are passing through, even though we never see those characters or really learn their names. They also make sure to give important narrative beats time in frame, so characters don’t have to spell them out, from keeping Kowalski in frame well after he’s cut himself free and become nothing more than a speck, to the ISS and later the Chinese station, to the beginnings of the fire within the ISS. Consequently, this is a film that only really has two scenes of exposition in the entire film. The film always just keeps moving, letting any explanations that need to be made be done through the environments.
This is an extraordinary science fiction film, one that was absolutely worthy of its numerous award nominations, and is a film that really gave me a new respect for Sandra Bullock as an actor. I definitely recommend you watch this film.