On one level, Gravity is nothing new: state-of-the-art Hollywood technology in the service of an old-fashioned supernatural (i.e., religious) theme. The premise: Two shuttle astronauts played by two of our biggest stars (Sandra Bullock, George Clooney) get marooned in space when speeding debris from an exploded Russian satellite takes out their craft and kills everyone else, on- and off-board. So the drifting, shell-shocked, motion-sick medical engineer, Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), and the gregarious veteran astronaut, Matt Kowalski (Clooney), must find a working shuttle to get them to Earth—fast. Possibly it’s in the nearby Russian space station, possibly not. It’s a mess up there. Woven amid the multiple bombardments and cliffhangers is a stark spiritual odyssey: A woman who is dead inside must find (or refind) her faith, letting go to be born again. (Twelve-steppers like to say, “Let go and let God.”) The movie is as cornball as all get-out and—once you discern the narrative arc—as predictable.
But then there’s the part that’s—as we serious cinephiles like to say—infuckingcredible.
The first shot of Gravity is very, very long and entirely sinuous. We see a slice of the Earth and then a dot that turns out to be a shuttle moving toward us, faster than we anticipate, with three figures attached—two working on the craft, one floating free. Of course it wasn’t done in real time—it’s computerized—but it’s still one (count it) shot that goes from macro (the planet) to almost micro (a dislodged bolt floating into the camera). It’s in these first pre-catastrophe minutes that the real and mind-expanding subject of Gravity manifests itself: the Higher Math.
My own puny brain goes haywire attempting to sort out the variables, but computer programmers and Princeton mathematicians will find their own version of heaven onscreen. Is the camera moving toward the shuttle or vice versa or both? Or is it the Earth’s rotation that’s controlling the shot? Or are all three variables working in tandem? Are there equations (or logarithms) for the way the bodies drift vis-à-vis the Earth’s rotation in zero gravity while the stars move in the background? What about the characters’ limbs, weightless but subject to other forces, internal and external? How do you determine the momentum and impact of an astronaut’s body as it collides with another or the side of a spacecraft with a head-rocking oomph? What about the debris? The shuttle comes apart the way something really would in oxygenless outer space—not with a Star Wars–like explosion of flames but in splinters and hard shards that spin (lethally) our way.
All this isn’t irrelevant to the human story. Sandy and George—I have a hard time calling them Ryan and Matt—have to calculate these variables themselves in order to live, all while worrying about their fuel and O2 levels. (“O2 down to 2 percent …” “Take shallow breaths …”) If and when your child whines, “Why do we need to know math anyway? How will we ever use it?,” you can take him or her to Gravity and point not just to the awe-inspiring physics that put humans in space but the gods of cinema who made George and Sandy float.
I saw Gravity in 3-D, and so should you, sitting as close as you dare to the biggest screen possible, preferably in a seat like the one I had, which rocked back and forth as I recoiled from the impact of light, sound, and my own bedazzled (and bewitched and bewildered) senses. Almost from the start, director Alfonso Cuarón puts you inside the frame and subject (in your pummeled, suggestible state) to the primal fight-or-flight instincts engendered by disorientation. The impact of the shuttle’s destruction sends Sandy spinning into space, and we see the world (planet, stars) from her point of view, up-down-up-down-sideways-up, the lights stabbing and streaking. The sound or its lack is essential to the illusion: barely discerned NASA-speak on multiple channels … a theater-shaking roar … and silence. High frequencies go in and out, underscored by a nearly omnipresent heartbeat that works its way into the music by Steven Price. Before the disaster, there are passages of conventional awe—heavily orchestral—but then the score gives way to crackles and the terrible sound of silence.
George plays it hearty and hail-fellow-well-met—his star power manages to come through even in his astronaut suit. But it’s Sandy’s movie. She’s our most down-to-earth A-list superstar, which makes her the perfect person to connect with us in outer space. At first she’s ashen and blank-faced. Then comes the sequence aboard a space station where she wriggles out of her space suit and floats—in a T-shirt and black undies—in zero gravity. There she is, in the fetal position, suspended in the film’s version of amniotic fluid, about to swim through the birth canal that is a creaky, clanky Soyuz—it’s the most expressive ballet ever captured in a sci-fi film and apparently achieved with the help of super-puppeteers from the War Horse play. Will she surrender to despair or be born again? She’s Sandy Bullock. She’s faith-based.
I winced through some of the film’s climactic spiritual contortions, but I had plenty of awe of my own for visual-effects supervisor Tim Webber and his team of obvious geniuses. And I don’t think my reverence for the math is on an entirely separate track from the religious journey of the movie’s protagonist. Gravity is a crowd-pleasing version of what scientists and mathematicians are said to experience in their rarefied sphere—a wondrous fusion of faith and science. It’s the Higher Corn.
*This article originally appeared in the October 7, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.