Gravity (2013)
By: Stuart Giesel on October 4, 2013 | Comments
Gravity Poster
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring:: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Screnplay: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Country: USA, UK
With the release of the immensely impressive and sphincter-tightening Gravity, it's now time to place director Alfonso Cuarón at the head of the most innovative and exciting auteurs currently working in Hollywood. His previous film, the thrilling Children of Men, was one of the strongest films of the 00's, and he's also directed the best Harry Potter film (Azkaban) and given us the surprisingly good, sexy road film Y tu mamá también. If there was any justice in the world, we'd be seeing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences lob an arm-load of Oscars at the makers and stars of Gravity, because you're probably not going to find a more immersive or, frankly, better film this year.

There's not much plot to speak of, because essentially Gravity is a survival story set in space, and we certainly don't need more than the most perfunctory character development because as the stakes get more desperate, we become more involved with the astronauts' survival. Medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first space mission, working with the far more experienced astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is going to retire after this one final mission. Unfortunately for them and the rest of their crew, debris from an exploded Russian satellite badly damages their shuttle, and they soon realise they have to get to another space station if they want to survive. With their oxygen supplies running low and precious few resources other than Kowalski's thruster pack, Stone finds herself in unfamiliar, and horrifying, territory.

Gravity isn't a horror film, but it sure as hell feels like one at times. The film is almost unbearably tense in spots, and when you're not holding your breath you're most likely squirming in your seat as you watch Bullock and Clooney dance their weightless ballet and try not to let go of whatever they happen to have snagged a hold of for the moment. Thanks to Cuarón's expert eye and his trademark long, loooong unbroken shots (the opening scene is apparently an unbroken eighteen-or-so minutes in length) you really feel a part of the action - at one point the camera actually passes through Bullock's helmet so that we see the action from her perspective through a fogged-up, badly scratched visor. At one point which harkens back to the blood-spattered lens in Children of Men, a blob of moisture actually hits the lens, like we're right there in the middle of the action acting as a documentarian recording the horror that's taking place around us.

Let's just take a moment to reflect on the absolutely stunning cinematography by the legendary Emmanuel Lubezki and his crew. Lubezki, one of the best cinematographers in the business who should already have two Oscars on his mantle for Children of Men and The Tree of Life, has really outdone himself here. The camera pans and glides from character to character, spins sickeningly to simulate the helplessness of an astronaut hurtling out into the inky depths of space, gives us stomach-churning first-person perspectives, and is never less than utterly seamless. God knows how Cuarón, Lubezki and their team accomplished it, but Gravity looks utterly authentic and terrifyingly real, with nary a bit of dodgy CGI to spoil the experience. The film opens with beautiful shots of Earth and its immense surroundings before cranking up the action - and this is a pretty action-packed film, it has to be said, more than you might have been expecting. So once the debris hits the shuttle we soon forget the amazing backdrop as we become completely immersed in the experience. Yet Cuarón is careful to sprinkle some quiet moments throughout, giving us a beautiful sunrise or a shot of the aurora borealis, to remind us of why these men and women risk their lives to work and live in such an unforgiving environment. For once, the 3D work actually greatly improves the final product - in fact, Gravity is probably the one film I can think of that you actually must see in 3D. There's a sense of immersiveness and detail here that truly lends itself to that extra dimension, and this truly is the most technically accomplished and impressive use of 3D yet, and that includes Avatar. If Lubezki misses out on an Oscar this time around, you have to wonder what he has to do to ever win one - presumably invent a new technology to enable us to watch films in 4D.

The opening titles remind us that space can get really cold, and that there's no sound - this latter point is worth remembering, because after years of sound effects tearing up space in Star Wars, Star Trek and everything inbetween, it's initially a little odd to be hearing basically nothing as the action unfolds in Gravity, even as debris is flying all around, bits of space station are torn away and astronauts are frantically flailing about trying to find purchase on the nearest handle, cable or whatever might be at hand. That's not to say there's no sound design - you hear Bullock's panicked breathing, or Clooney's reassuring words, or the muted sounds of the goings-on immediately surrounding them like you're the one in that space helmet. Fortunately, Steven Price's score, which has to do a lot of the heavy lifting, so to speak, is excellent - his propulsive, throbbing, occasionally eerie score really drives the film and gives it an additional layer of urgency.

You might expect that the technical superiority of the production, the beautiful and often staggering cinematography and the flawless CGI work would overshadow the performances, but that's not the case. The thrill of Gravity might dampen a bit when it comes to giving us a little of the backstories behind Ryan and Matt, but both Bullock and Clooney truly shine in their roles, an especially impressive feat given the fact they spend much of their time in restrictive space suits or being flung around like ragdolls. Bullock in particular has the most physically demanding role of the two. Whilst I've never found her to be the most impressive of performers, she absolutely nails her part, bringing both a vulnerability and a toughness to this relatively inexperienced medical engineer. It's probably her best performance to date, better than that wretched and schmaltzy Blind Side movie.

At this point, to say any more would spoil the beauty of watching Gravity for yourself with little or no expectations other than the knowledge that this is a fucking great movie. It's absolutely the closest that most of us are going to get to experiencing life in space, and to be honest, from the amount of trauma and terror that the characters experience in the film - and the amount of anxiety we the viewers endure by watching them - you can keep your space suits. I'll stick with gravity here on Earth. And go watch Gravity again when my nerves can withstand it.
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