GravityThe last few times I’ve been to the movies, I’ve noticed something strange about the audience – it has a way of reacting loudly and conspicuously, even when what’s happening on the screen demands no reaction at all.  It’s as if we (I say “we” because I’m guilty of this, too) feel the need to yell out occasionally, just to remind ourselves that we’re still there.

For the 91 minutes I spent watching Gravity, the great Alfonso Cuarón’s seventh film, I don’t think I heard one sound from the entire theater.  No nervous laughter, no gasps (though there are scenes in this film that rank among the most thrilling I’ve ever seen), not even a cheer to celebrate a rare moment of success for its characters, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.  As the two astronauts find themselves in the middle of an adventure, the audience’s immersion was unrelenting, intense, and completely silent – much like the crisis onscreen.

It begins with words, not images.  In space, the intertitle tells us, the temperature fluctuates between 258 and negative 148 degrees Fahrenheit.  Then comes the first of many unforgettable 3D spectacles: planet Earth and the stars beyond, a tiny white ship drifting closer and closer to the foreground.  We meet Clooney’s Matt Kowalski, the experienced pilot, and Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone, the rookie, as they talk about New Orleans, country music, drinking – anything that will remind them that they’re still alive.  This is only the beginning of a 17-minute continuous shot that oscillates between close-ups and pans, humor and terror, intimate character development and unadulterated showboating.  Cuarón, whose Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También are rightly celebrated for their casual characterization and impressive tracking shots, has made a career out of perfecting a style so elaborate that it’s invisible.  Somehow, for a sizable chunk of those first 17 minutes, he made me forget I was even watching a movie.

The greater irony, of course, is that this cool effortlessness took more than seven years to get right.   When Cuarón first pitched the film in 2006, he was told that the sound stages and computer imagery he required hadn’t yet been invented.  Since then, he has solved some impressive puzzles, building off of the same technology that has helped make successes out of so many big-budget films in the last few years.  But Cuarón’s special effects seem vastly different from James Cameron’s or Ang Lee’s.  While the latter two seemed mostly interested in 3D for its shock value (think Na’vi and tigers), Cuarón knows that a body drifting away from the viewer can be more terrifying than one hurling closer.  When he does use 3D to break the fourth wall, it’s pathos, not cheap thrills, that he creates – Bullock’s tears floating off her face, and a tiny Marvin the Martian doll drifting around without a child to play with it.

I’ve been neglecting Gravity’s plot not because it’s bad or cheesy, but because it’s inevitably less interesting than the vast stage Cuarón has built on which it was to be performed.  Ryan’s backstory is touching, but in some sense superfluous.  By overcompensating to make his protagonist sympathetic, Cuarón seems to have underestimated his own film – we would have been rooting for just about any human he had thrust into such ingeniously scary circumstances.  What matter in Gravity are scenes of universal terror and relief, not the moments in which Ryan remembers her lonely life back home (or, for that matter the parts where she mutters to herself because the screenplay requires her to remind everyone in the theater what’s going on).  At the core of this film is a survival story; much of what’s left over seems second-hand, borrowed from a less original film.

In the last decade, Alfonso Cuarón has developed a style of filmmaking that isn’t smugly obsessed with its own movie knowledge (though you’ll find references to Jaws and Apollo 13 here), or laden with pseudo-serious, pause-laden dialogue.  At their best, his films have something mythological about them, whether it’s Clive Owen huddled in a boat with the future of the human race, or Bullock emerging from a womblike pod, reborn.  Even if Cuarón sometimes forgets his own lesson, Gravity’s audiences seem to have learned it well: the most important things, like the Earth, like life, like survival, don’t require reactions or explanations.  They speak – silently, beautifully, and thrillingly – for themselves.