Almost all of the reviews I’ve seen so far for Gravity focus on it as a kind of cinematic roller-coaster. Even Film Crit Hulk found himself lost for words:
THERE IS NO GIANT COLUMN TO WRITE ABOUT GRAVITY.
OR, AT LEAST, HULK IS NOT THE ONE TO WRITE IT.
Mark Kermode’s most important contribution to the general endorsement was a shocking reversal, but similarly focused around the kinetic aspects of the film. FCH goes on to explain that
THAT COLUMN WOULD PROBABLY BELONG TO THE HOST OF BRILLIANT CINEMATOGRAPHERS AND / OR TECHNICALLY MINDED GENIUSES WHO COULD POSSIBLY EXPLAIN TO HULK HOW SUCH A FILM COULD BE ACHIEVED.
I just about agree, but I do think there is more going on here than the visual design of the film. There are plenty of visually stunning films that are emotionally unsatisfying, either from being inert, or from juxtaposing story elements that clash. Sunshine  springs to mind as another space odyssey whose production design was absolutely mind-blowing – but Sunshine is marred by a completely unnecessary murder-house plot that springs from nowhere in the last third.
Of course, FCH does go on to outline some very important and cogent points about the story structure of the film. No critic ever really posts just to say they have nothing to say. He picks out a number of interesting things, one of which is also picked up by Lynne, the use of birth imagery. Somehow, these disparate points are insufficient to explain why this film is so gripping. I’ve watched it twice in the cinema now, and while the kinetic stuff was awesome, it was largely ruined by poor projection in the second viewing without ruining the experience.
Gravity has a simple and familiar story structure – the hazardous journey. My first experience with this genre was The Poseidon Adventure, but there are a host to choose from. In some ways, we can think about the hazardous journey as being the dark twin of the so-called “hero’s journey”, as it includes many of the same action fulcra when striped down to the essentialist level of the monomyth.
For example, in the hero’s journey, the first step is usually to refuse the call to adventure. The hazardous hero too, tries to deny that the situation is unfolding around them. More specifically, they initially deny, or do not comprehend, that they are to be a survivor. They panic, and need to be rescued by a survival mentor – just as the hero acquires a heroic mentor. I have always regarded the Hero’s Journey as somewhat specious, for a number of reasons, not least of which is the extreme variability in action acros the source texts. The hazardous journey, however, is genuinely a formula fiction, and that kind of analysis is far more applicable.
There is one important way in which Gravity does not use the hazardous journey’s typical configuration, and that is Ryan Stone’s isolation. She has a self-sacrificing mentor, which is indispensible, but she does not have a gaggle of followers that can be used to demonstrate her vulnerability via their deaths. It is tempting to speculate that the reason the film can function without them is that the film is sufficiently realistic in appearance, and sufficiently kinetic, that the threat is plausible without being “told” that it is dangerous via the deaths of minor characters. One death, of the mentor, is inescabaple, the rest are replaced by cinematography in this film. That under-reads the details of the imagery constructed by the filmmakers.
We can instead connect this plot structure to the birth imagery that Lynne has identified for us. In each of the dangerous episodes of the typical hazardous journey, someone is lost. In Gravity, each of the dangerous episodes ends with the near-death of Stone, and the next episode begins with her emerging from a womb. We thus get the deaths that are necessary in proxy form, from the imagery.
Gravity is an exceptionally good film, because it structures and presents a formula that we are familiar with in a realistic way, and evades both incredulity and fatigue by being short, and by replacing predictable deaths with death and rebirth imagery. There’s more to it than fantastic cinematography.