Oct. 2 2013 02:39 PM

Alfonso Cuarón's breathless space odyssey is a freefall toward grace

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Sandra Bullock, alone with her thoughts
We cling to stories like life preservers. They provide us with hope when all seems lost, perspective when uncertainty feels pervasive. Relating to the lives of others, usually through media like film and oral history, lets us step outside our own broken gaze to see the bigger picture.

It's natural really, trusting the power of shared experience. But what happens when the story itself is toxic, the cause of debilitating trauma? Relying on this kind of false comfort can be an act of self-destruction.

Alfonso Cuarón's death-defying Gravity examines such a volatile scenario, where storytelling and memory not only fail to provide the necessary context for survival but also force body and mind deeper into freefall by way of delusion.

This is Dr. Ryan Stone's (Sandra Bullock) story, and Gravity's staggering intergalactic opening shot finds her clinging to the outside of a NASA spacecraft attempting to fix an operation system that she's specifically designed for this mission. Things aren't going well. Her breathing is swift, so much so that it seems one miscue could lead to hyperventilation. Staying calm isn't easy in a harsh environment that the film itself describes as "impossible."

Her colleagues, including cocky veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), dance through space as if it were just another vast performance. They exchange trivial banter, verbal distractions from the intense operation under way, while cinematographer Emmanuel Luzbeki's nimble camera captures a cosmic horizon in full bloom. It's hauntingly peaceful, until it's just plain haunting.

Suddenly, shrapnel from a wrecked satellite decimates their ship, hurling Stone into the void with only Kowalski's voice to keep her calm. Cuarón covers the action without cutting, allowing the widescreen horror of perforated metal and disintegrated fibers to culminate in a mosaic of twirling abstract expressionism. It's like witnessing a Jackson Pollock painting exploding before our eyes.

Stone spends the rest of Gravity trying to re-stabilize her mind, body and soul. Hers is most certainly a physical quest—the filmmakers create a staggering visual design that never stops spinning, spiraling and twisting. But Gravity is also a psychological reckoning for a troubled genius forced to reconcile her demons in order to survive.

In this sense, Gravity is just as much a thematic gauntlet as it is a visceral one. Through Stone's panicked eyes, Cuarón exposes the futility of denying past traumas, stripping away the sort of self-fulfilling narratives Kowalski likes to reference throughout the film. In space, the horror of facing your own legacy in dead silence is a kind of damnation.

Glimmers of hope still exist, though. Stone makes contact with a radio frequency emanating from Earth. Upon hearing a man's voice and a dog's bark, she breaks down because of the association it makes with her previous life. Very few films would dedicate an entire sequence to this sort of personal epiphany, but Cuarón sees it as an essential bridge for his character's rebirth.

It's worth noting that Gravity pairs up nicely with Cuarón's previous film, another thrillingly singular adventure called Children of Men. Both films see survival as a game of seconds and inches while also examining the split-second power of the elements (spreading fire, crackling ice). Floating water particles splash across the camera's lens in Gravity, while Children of Men often sprayed the camera with blood. Even the piercing sound of a baby's cry initiates change for distraught characters in both films.

Cuarón has always been a hopeful filmmaker, but Gravity—which opens Friday, Oct. 4, in various theaters—seeks to courageously defeat the self-defeating myths that continuously limit us from seeing the world anew. In doing so, the film expresses the power of standing upright and fully embracing the ambiguity of what's next.

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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