Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonas Cuarón, Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris, Running time: 91 minutes, Certification: 12A
When space debris from a Russian satellite explosion destroys their shuttle, astronauts Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (Clooney) face a race against time to find a way back down to the Earth’s surface before being lost in space forever.
The first obstacle to overcome when experiencing Gravity – and you do experience it – is to hurdle the surging expectations. The level of praise and acclaim this film has received since its US release last month, and its Venice Film Festival premiere the month before that, has been incredible. Everyone, it seems, loves this film. While I’ve no doubt that’s helped the ticket sales, I can’t help but feel a vain sense of disappointment that I didn’t have the chance to go into the film with completely fresh eyes. I didn’t have the chance to be genuinely surprised. My mind was, as Sheldon Cooper would say, pre-blown. Yet it’s silly to get bogged down in such idiosyncrasies; the film should speak for itself, and if it’s really as good as they say, such things matter little. Despair, elation, fear, excitement, amazement, wonder. These are just some of the emotions we ride through during Gravity. In other words, there was nothing to worry about.
In an immediate display of ambition, we open with a marvelous, captivating sequence where Cuarón’s camera runs for ten straight minutes uninterrupted as it drifts delicately through the void of space, circling around the shuttle and introducing our characters and the actions they face. Rarely is such confidence and wonderful invention with the camera displayed these days, even with accomplished and veteran directors. That willingness to just go for it, to let the camera loose and ever so slowly build and build to the crisis without worrying that the audience will lose interest, is fantastic. In fact, Cuarón often just lets the camera do its own work when he leaves it to float around transcendentally in zero gravity (or artificial zero gravity at any rate), tipping upside down, circling around helmets and spinning uncontrollable through debris-riddled space. Then when he takes control again, we get a load of close and personal P.O.V shots which put us right in centre of the breathtaking, silent action.
That P.O.V camerawork, at times to the point of actually getting inside Dr. Stone’s helmet, also lends itself to the immense claustrophobia of the whole experience. Nowhere else is quite as empty, quite as desolate, quite as vacuous as space. The thought of floating off into the black void with no way of stopping yourself is unimaginably torturous, not unlike Open Water’s depiction of floating away in the middle of the ocean only a ten times scarier and a hundred times more hopeless. Cuarón captures the feeling with deft, intimate and gentle shots, while Bullock and Clooney do the impressive work of making us really invest ourselves in them without much in the way of character development, through subtle, clever performances.
Pun, of course, intended, the whole film is also curiously down-to-Earth. There’s never a sense that it’s trying to be, or thinks it is, bigger than itself. While certainly it matches its contemporaries visually and as a spectacle, it’s refreshing in its confidence to stick to such a simple, linear story line right until the end – because, when you strip it down, there really isn’t a lot going on here. Two characters (bar voices), one setting (space), one idea (getting back to Earth amidst volleys of space debris). That’s not to say it isn’t ambitious; it’s wildly ambitious, but tangentially to the way Inception proved that blockbusters don’t have to be big and dumb to make money, Gravity proves that films don’t have to rely on big, lavish sets or complicated plots to be breathtaking. Of course, as with any genre movie, it generally conforms to the standard space cliches (many which are probably too spoilerific to post here), but it’s never too problematic. In regards to the story and plot, it’s nothing we haven’t really seen before, but it’s technically superb, and in the end, Gravity is more a film about invention and visuals than plot development.
On that note, while entirely green-screened, this film is a visual exhibition. As Ryan and Matt gaze over our world as the sun rises from the east, we feel as if we’re right there with them basking in the glow. Emmanuel Lubezki’s striking cinematography really captures the magic of our planet from space that so few of us are lucky enough to ever see, and thanks to his skill and films like Gravity, we can’t really get any closer to how it must feel without actually going. His utilization of stereoscopy is better than most; at times immersive with certain flying-debris sequences actually making us duck for cover, but still ultimately unnecessary. 3D isn’t the reason for the blackness of space being somehow alluring and beautiful (an IMAX print will do no harm), although at least the light loss, for once, isn’t an issue. Equally as important and impressive is the soundtrack – and that’s the actual sounds on the track, not the music (although that’s also fantastic) – which is powerful and gripping, despite the entirety of the drama taking place in soundless vacuum. It’s quality over quantity stuff, and the quality here is first drawer.
Gravity is easily one of the most impressive and ambitious films of the year. From intense, toe-curling, edge-of-your seat action to blissful, reflective character sequences, there’s never a dull moment and it’s hard to find a single thing to fault. That being said, I don’t think it’s a groundbreaker or a masterpiece or game-changer; it’s just a spectacle. It’s an incredible, exhilarating experience and a genuinely powerful piece of cinema that, unlike its premise, attempts at every turn to lift you off your feet. This is a film that deserves to be seen on the biggest, loudest, eye-popping screen possible: do it that justice.