It’s one small step for visual effects and one giant leap for cinema in Alfonso Cuarón’s extraordinary survival thriller where astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney have a very serious problem.
Not since 1995’s Apollo 13 has a film delivered the stomach-churning sense of what it must truly be like to be lost in space and have to rely on ingenuity and bravery to survive against all the odds.
The film’s overwhelming box office success is richly deserved recompense for the four years Cuarón spent bringing Gravity to the big screen.
Cuarón revealed himself to be a technical director par excellence in his under-appreciated 2006 dystopian sci-fi masterpiece Children Of Men and held out on making Gravity until visual effects technology had finally caught up with his vision for the film.
His, and our, patience has been rewarded as the film is nothing short of a game-changer and a fully immersive motion picture experience that raises the bar to dizzying new heights.
Gravity‘s plot is the highest of high concepts. Rookie astronaut Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock) and grizzled veteran Matt Kowalski (Clooney) are on a routine spacewalk to service the Hubble telescope when Mission Control (voiced by Apollo 13‘s Ed Harris) warns of a Russian missile strike on an out-of-service satellite that has caused a chain reaction of debris heading their way fast. Before they have time to properly react the debris tears through their shuttle, leaving them cut off from everything and everyone.
From the moment a shimmering Planet Earth majestically appears, swallowing the tiny shuttle that slowly becomes our focus, we’re putty in Cuarón’s hands. It’s a stunning opening shot, lasting about 15 minutes (Cuarón has also shown to be a past master in the art of the tracking shot too), that introduces us to the nervous Stone and relaxed and charismatic Kowalski before all hell breaks loose.
We’ve grown so used as moviegoers to hearing sound effects for films set in space that the (scientifically accurate) silence of the shuttle being torn to pieces is actually more disconcerting and terrifying.
These sequences are Gravity‘s tour de force as the line between what is real and what is digitally rendered is almost completely removed. Rather than being some lazy 3-D device, the moment when pieces of debris fly towards the screen will have you flinching and ducking out the way, such is the all-consuming effect the film has on the senses.
The only sound we do hear, apart from Stone’s panicked panting, is Steven Price’s urgent and ominous score, which sounds like it’s been beamed in from another planet.
Another of the film’s strengths is to emphasise just how vulnerable and helpless we are when setting foot off our planet despite all of our technology. Stone and Kowalski spend much of their time desperately tethering themselves to chunks of metal or each other in a frantic effort to survive.
Bullock is on impressive form as the damaged Stone, who’s put through the wringer and must reach her lowest ebb before finally finding the emotional and physical strength to carry on. Although unsubtle, the scene when she makes it inside the womb of the International Space Station and huddles weightless in the foetal position (still tethered as if umbilically attached) may be an unsubtle metaphor for rebirth, but is a striking one nonetheless.
While Bullock brings an admirable range to her role, Clooney might as well be playing himself. It’s not necessarily the actor’s fault; Cuarón’s script, co-written with his son Jonás, provides the sort of dialogue that suggests it’s Clooney in orbit rather than Matt Kowalski. That said, I’ll take Clooney on autopilot over most other actors any day.
James Cameron, no stranger to sci-fi, has called Gravity “the best space film ever done”. Although there’s stiff competition for that particular accolade, such high praise is justified for a film that sets a new benchmark in what cinema is visually capable of.