Gravity begins with a brief rundown of facts that illustrate how perilous space can be for humans. Life there, the film tells us, is impossible. Director Alfonso Cuarón then proceeds to show us precisely how true this is.
For all its impressive special effects and technical intricacies, Gravity is actually a very simple film about survival. It stars Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone, a specialist on her first space mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). When Russia destroys one of its own satellites, inadvertently sending a cloud of debris on a collision course with their small shuttle, the two must work together to survive.
The film is an undeniable spectacle. It’s taken Cuarón the best part of seven years to put Gravity together, since the release of Children of Men, and that time has certainly been well spent. Few films have captured the vastness of space in quite the way it is depicted here; thanks to a combination of long tracking shots and artful visual effects, we really feel we are cut adrift with the characters. The backdrop is generally Earth, or else the immeasurable void of space, and Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki create a palpable sense of the emptiness and stark realities of this supremely unforgiving environment. The result is not like anything else you will have seen; Gravity is a film that demands to be seen in a cinema if at all possible, simply for its sheer size.
While the visuals feel like another step forward in special effects-driven filmmaking (as Avatar’s did in 2009), the disaster film structure is familiar. Stone must navigate a series of increasingly desperate scenarios, all while overcoming demons of her own. Her backstory is actually one of the few slightly superfluous elements in a film that is otherwise remarkably stripped down. When it is first introduced, there is a sense that Cuarón and his co-writer son Jonás didn’t really trust their audience to get emotionally invested in Stone’s struggle without a specific hook, and it’s a bit jarring, although that said it does provide a level of existential grief – namely, how much energy does she have to go on fighting to survive? – that might otherwise have seemed out of place.
If one was to be picky, one might say that the script is perhaps not quite as spectacular as the visuals. There are occasions when emotional strings are tugged at perhaps a little too blatantly, and a bit more subtlety would have been welcome overall, but this is not a major flaw. Bullock gives a strong performance in the lead, and she and Clooney have a couple of very effective scenes. One is particularly excellent; the details of which do not need to be discussed here.
One of the great things about Cuarón’s direction is that he has given the film a sense of identity, despite the sparseness of his setting and his small cast. The film is big on spectacle and whizz-bang effects, but it also isn’t afraid to step back on occasion. One of the film’s most memorable scenes is also one of its quietest, when Stone allows herself to float in a foetal position in an airlock, mechanical tubes emanating from her like umbilical chords. There is also a terrifically rousing sequence towards the end which, again, I won’t spoil.
Gravity is undoubtedly one of the year’s best blockbusters, but is also just an excellent film. Cuarón’s visual flair is something to behold, and the film’s structure is pleasingly lean and unafraid to take risks. It’s also one of the only films I’ve seen in 3D where the effect hasn’t grated with me. It makes sense in the context of the action – there is a lot of movement towards and away from the camera – but this feels organic rather than gimmicky. In the few moments when debris and so on flies ‘out’ of the screen, this still has the same alienating effect I’m afraid it always does.
If Cuarón’s long-gestating thriller is perhaps not quite the masterpiece we were hoping for, it is still a thrilling and visually striking work. On the evidence of this, Cuarón should be allowed all the time he needs for his next project.