Bloody hell, this has a lot to live up to.
I’ve been trying to avoid explicit details about Gravity, save for that mesmeric trailer. Nevertheless, the general hubbub of ecstatic praise has been hard to sidestep. And, aside from that feeble, attention-seeking article on the Metro website, it certainly feels as though critical reception for Alfonso Cuarón’s long-gestated science fiction thriller has been unanimously glowing. It’s not often that an effects-heavy film constructed for mainstream consumption receives such praise from all quarters. Even the more snobbish corners of the media have been salivating. Really, it can’t be that good, can it? A truly universal movie?
My viewing of the film was initially hampered by, ironically, technical difficulties. The previous screening had been in 2D and the set-up hadn’t been adjusted for the 3D version I was present for. As such my entry point to the movie was a little (perhaps even suitably?) bumpy. A blurred planet. Earth. The audience registered its dissatisfaction promptly and Gravity was brought into sharp focus. Surprisingly sharp for 3D – a medium I have remained skeptical of, despite a few effective examples (Avatar, Prometheus, Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Cuarón’s film demands to be experienced in 3D at least once. It is the finest example of the technology thus far.
The visuals are breathtaking, painstakingly realised. This is a showman’s film. Cuarón gives Gravity to the audience, almost as if to say, “Look. Look what I’ve done.” And yet every moment is designed not out of vanity but out of a sincere will to immerse the viewer in the immediate experience of an out of this world struggle for survival.
For this is a survival film. A 90 minute battle on a scale both vast and unexpectedly intimate. We join astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as they perform ‘routine’ maintenance miles above the Earth’s surface. A third astronaut bobs in the background (Spoiler: don’t get too attached to that guy), when mission control urgently warns the team to pack it in; a series of unfortunate events has sent a drift of debris onto a collision course with our heroes.
Things escalate quickly.
Soon everything matters, and everything that matters is in short supply. Time. Oxygen. Hope. Life in space is impossible, Cuarón’s film has gone to great pains to emphasise this. We’re about to see how difficult remaining alive against the odds can be.
The film presents itself as a two-hander between Bullock and Clooney, but this is essentially Bullock’s show. Clooney’s character Kowalski is the more experienced of the two; and Curaón’s casting is wise here. Clooney turns on that affable, easygoing charm to almost grating effect upfront, but it’s a vital component of the relationship between the two astronauts; he is Stone’s anchor in this utterly alien world. As all else spins out of control, she at least has him as a compass. But even this will become uncertain as deeper troubles bubble to the surface.
And that’s perhaps the most happily surprising thing about Gravity‘s cold exterior; there’s a heavy, vital dose of humanity here, impressively captured by Bullock in her best performance to date. Unexpectedly, Cuarón’s film, whilst unashamedly built to be enjoyed by the masses, is about bereavement and depression. Stone’s fight for survival is given extra weight by the very real suggestion that she might not even have the fight in her. In one of the film’s more quietly engaging moments, she reveals her troubled circumstances back on Earth. The extreme life or death situation of Cuarón’s invention becomes a literal translation of her inner malaise; Stone is emotionally adrift, detached, craving numbness and nothingness. Faced with oblivion, she has to choose whether to fight to remain tethered to the world at all.
It’s a welcome level of depth in what might otherwise have been a thrilling but vacuous string of technologically astounding set pieces. The debris field’s clockwork threat promises the kind of kinetic disaster fireworks established in the promo materials, but it’d all be nothing if we the audience didn’t have someone to hold on to.
As it goes, Gravity ought to have a number of technical awards in the bag. Visually, nothing compares to it. Gratifyingly, the sound design is impeccable, with rigid adherence to the idea that there is no sound in space. Every explosion or collision is heard through the space suits. When the viewer is not afforded this medium there is nothing to hear but Steven Price’s measured score or that vast, desolate emptiness.
Cuarón’s penchant for extended takes (which stood out as impressive but uncomfortable in the uneven Children Of Men) works to terrific effect here, daring the viewer to blink. In one of the film’s most extraordinary moments, the camera moves not only through the barrier of a space suit visor, but right into the inhabitant, right to their P.O.V., before slipping back out again with astonishing mastery. Yes, it draws attention to itself, but never at the expense of the story.
The narrative may follow a relatively simple (if frequently spinning) trajectory, but this also enables Gravity to retain a leanness and immediacy that is critical to its success. The film is just the right size. It does everything it needs to. Stone’s journey is an emotionally engaging one and is well-defined. Bullock is an unassuming choice. Admittedly not one of my favourite actresses, she is nevertheless a great fit for the role, convincing from start to finish, even pleasingly surprising.
You can read into the film if you wish to (personally speaking, it felt to me a lot like the story of a traumatic birth), you can delve into the character and empathise for Stone and her emotional limbo, or you can take it all at surface level and experience Gravity first and foremost as a theme park ride. That it offers something substantial for each approach is a testimony to its success at being, yes, a universal movie. There really is something for everyone here, even the nitpickers (did James Cameron take a pass at the dialogue?). As such, and though I may still be stuck swirling in the film’s dazzling orbit, I’m having trouble finding much I didn’t like here.
And bravo to Cuarón for crafting a film that demands to be seen on the big screen. Go to the cinema for this one. Don’t wait.