"Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission," says astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), clowning around with Mission Control back on Earth, in Alfonso Cuaron's new film, Gravity. The home planet, blue, green and brown, looms massively beneath the space shuttle, outside of which Matt and medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are tethered, doing a patch-up on the Hubble telescope.
The voice of Mission Control (in a nod to another space-disaster movie, Apollo 13) belongs to Ed Harris, who reports that dangerous debris is quickly heading their way, the result of the Russians deliberately destroying one of their satellites. The worst comes to pass – the ship is shelled with debris and irreparably damaged. The astronauts are tossed into space in their spacesuits, with oxygen running out, miles above the surface of the Earth. It's terrifying, but you also want to clap: The entire 13-minute sequence is a single beautifully designed shot.
Time to say their prayers? Not quite. Kowalski sees a Russian space station in the distance, the first of a chain of slim chances of returning to Earth.
Gravity is the first movie in seven years from Cuaron, since his dystopic film Children of Men. Shot in 3-D, with fully immersive realistic purpose, you should see Gravity that way, preferably in Imax, sitting in the middle near the back of the theatre, for the complete intensity of the experience. That way, you will be suspended, virtually stranded in space with the astronauts.
There's little dialogue in Gravity, but the tension is expertly manipulated, between scenes of utter quiet and sudden violence, moments of claustrophobia and vertigo, with long stretches of silence on the soundtrack.
Gravity is part of something bigger that is going on in movies right now. Many of the films being released this fall that lead the Oscar lists are survival stories. All, in a way, are descendants of Daniel Defoe's 18th-century novel Robinson Crusoe. Kidnapping and bondage in Twelve Years a Slave; piracy and abduction in the upcoming Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips; and a shipwreck in the Robert Redford drama, All Is Lost.
These films are an alternative to the artifice of the CGI global-franchise movies, with their complicated mythologies and overload of special effects. There's something conceptually pure about a drama that pits one individual against a hostile environment, that recognizes there are few experiences more immediate than a body in trouble. With Gravity, Cuaron uses cutting-edge technology, from robotic cameras to expert CGI, to create not a fantasy but tangible experience.
The story itself, and the movie stars, are the most conventional elements here. Clooney, in a distinctly supporting role, offers a variation on his glib, smart-aleck charmer, which the screenplay uses cunningly; in some ways, he's just a more talkative version of Wilson the volleyball to Tom Hanks in Cast Away. The real show is Bullock, in her best career performance with the least attitudinizing, the least dialogue. The screenplay's one false note is to provide her with a tragic backstory, with the implication that no normal woman would want such a risky career, but it's a small offence. Bullock leaves no doubt about her qualifications and intelligent focus, in a solo performance that's a series of reactions to catastrophically changing circumstances – as much choreography as acting.
As survival stories go, disappearing into the void is about as lost as you can get, but Cuaron's crowd-pleasing minimalist blockbuster wastes no time with philosophical or religious speculation about what it means, in the words of David Bowie, to be "strung out on heaven's high, hitting an all-time low." Yet Gravity, a weightless ballet and a cold-sweat nightmare, intimates mystery and profundity, with that mixture of beauty and terror that the Romantics called the sublime.