Like such films as Star Wars, The Matrix and Avatar, Gravity is a game-changer. A film that takes the convention of ‘cinematic experience’ to a level so stratospheric it’s unlikely the force of gravity is actually having any impact on the film anymore. While many films are described as ‘rollercoaster rides’ Gravity takes this much-used critical crutch to levels never thought possible whilst seated in a darkened room watching moving images. It might sound hyperbolic but Gravity is more than a film, it is an event that you have to experience to fully appreciate.
On her first trip to space, medical officer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is assisted by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). But when their shuttle is hit by falling debris Stone and Kowalski are left stranded in space, cut-off from Earth communications and with little hope of survival. With Stone’s oxygen almost depleted and Kowalski’s jetpack running out of fuel their only hope of survival is the International Space Station glimmering on the horizon.
Director Alfonso Cuarón has form in being able to execute stunning, single-shot set-pieces – see Children Of Men as a fine example – but with Gravity he takes that to all new levels. The opening act of the film is almost entirely one shot, sweeping, twisting and turning around the shuttle before sending us spinning on a giddy whirlwind of eye-popping astonishment as the debris sends Stone hurtling into outer space. At one point Kowalski, in trying to get Stone to focus, tells his colleague to breath, this statement is just as applicable to the audience.
Brilliantly aided by the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity is probably the closest most of us will come to experiencing near Earth orbit. The visuals are enough to keep you truly arrested for the film’s tight 91 minute running time. From the serene opening of Earth filling the periphery to the awe-inspiring bleakness of space, Cuarón and his crew have rendered something so staggeringly beautiful you almost don’t need any plot or characters to fully appreciate it.
But plot and characters there are. Clooney’s Kowalski, in a role originally intended for Robert Downey Jr., is affectionately cocky; a calm voice of reason when all hell is breaking loose. Bullock’s Stone meanwhile is the perfect avatar for the audience to invest in and accompany on this thrill-ride. At first she is apprehensive turning to blind panic as the proverbial hits the shuttle but through brilliant character development, smartly extracted while Kowlaski distracts her from the reality of the situation, Stone finds an inner resolve, a gritted determination to fight no matter what.
At times the plot becomes slightly repetitive as Stone must navigate the outside of a space station trying to find the next airlock. But Cuarón shoots everything in such a way as to have you grabbing at passing handholds in the vague hope that Stone may just cling to the one flying past you. Few films have made successful use of the studio driven 3D platform, James Cameron’s Avatar had it’s moments, Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi was certainly aided with some visual flourishes heightened by the medium but Cuarón uses it to an almost fully interactive level. What better way to convey the vastness of space, the curvature of the Earth the claustrophobic nature of a space suit, not to mention the sheer velicity at which things orbit our atmosphere, than through Cuarón’s 3D lens. So terrifyingly immersive is the effect that when we see space from Stone’s point of view it’s hard not to mutter to yourself “it’s just a film, it’s just a film, it’s just a film”.
In the build-up to awards season Gravity will invariably be talked about, and rightfully so. But you would be better off ignoring what others are saying about it, seek out the biggest screen you can and experience a film that has to be seen to be believed. At one point one of Stone’s fellow astronauts informs Houston that “Anxiety is bad for the heart”, he may be right but, as is also true of Gravity, it’s damn good for cinema.