From Orson Welles to Christopher Nolan, some of the most influential filmmakers in history have been obsessed with stage magic. I don't think that's an accident; one reason people go to the movies is in the hopes that they will come away astonished. Some of the best movies of all time—2001, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Citizen Kane—leave us, on first viewing, with the same question a good magic show does: How the hell did they do that?
Drop-jawed gawking doesn't happen much in the multiplexes anymore, because more often than not, we know exactly how they did that: computers. Obviously, they did that with computers. Ask me on my most cynical day, and I'll tell you that the sense of mystery and magic has all but disappeared from moviemaking. But parts of Gravity were so incredibly beautiful that I couldn't do anything but watch with my mouth hanging open, blown away by the amazing spectacle.
Seriously, though: How the hell did they do that? Gravity opens in the soundless void of outer space. A new, somewhat reluctant astronaut named Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and a seasoned space walker named Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are repairing a satellite in Earth's orbit. They're just floating in their bulky NASA-supplied space suits, and the camera spins around them, looping and arcing and phasing into and out of their helmets and gliding beneath them as they make small talk to keep a nervous Stone's mind off of throwing up. Something like the first third of the film is made up of one long tracking shot. This is not the sort of thing you do with wires that get wiped out in postproduction. You can't manage this kind of weightlessness by sticking the actors in a water tank. I know it was done with computers, but the artifice looks so real and is sustained so beautifully from every angle that it appears seamless. You want to believe that Cuarón actually flew Clooney and Bullock into outer space in order to achieve Brandoesque realism. (Springing for 3-D is recommended, but people who suffer from motion sickness should be warned that the floatiness can be more than a little nauseating.)
Gravity follows Stone as her shuttle (and contact with Mission Control) is destroyed in a hail of space debris from a Russian satellite demolition gone awry and she's forced to try to find a way to safety. A large portion of the soundtrack is Bullock hyperventilating. (It's a good thing that she has two of the most comforting voices in cinema—Clooney and Ed Harris as Mission Control—to talk her down when she most needs it.) There are no flashbacks or cuts to somewhere with an atmosphere, and the narrative unspools in more or less real time. It's your basic human versus nature survival story, only instead of the wilds of the Yukon, the nature happens to be an airless, inky pool that can kill you in seconds.
Bullock is outstanding, and I say this as someone who doesn't generally enjoy her work. Cuarón manages to make the most of her innate prickliness by turning it into a defense mechanism for a wounded, scared woman who's still raw from the death of her daughter and has no idea how to survive. She's on-screen for almost the whole movie, and she's riveting to watch.
Gravity is an awe-inspiring film, but it's not a perfect one. When that first, soundtrack-free tracking shot ends and the tinkly score and traditional scene cuts return, the movie loses a little of its luster. There are some unfortunate Hollywoodisms tossed in to amp up the threat. (She's running out of oxygen! Except here's this extra bit of oxygen we didn't tell you about before! Now that countdown we were so worried about means absolutely nothing!) And Gravity gets a little schlocky by the end. But as far as I'm concerned, if you can show me something I've genuinely never seen before—and do so with a confidence that leaves me gobsmacked about how the hell you managed to do it—you've earned a moment or two to try to apply an Important Life Lesson for the cheap seats. For God's sake, don't wait for Gravity on DVD; it's the sort of experience for which the phrase "movie magic" was intended.