7 November 2013
Alfonso Cuarón’s incredibly exciting, visually amazing film is about two astronauts floating in space. The title refers to the one big thing almost entirely absent from the film: it’s like The Seventh Seal being called Levity or Last Tango in Paris Chastity. With gorgeous, tilting planet Earth far below in its shimmering blue aura, a bulkily suited spaceman and spacewoman veer, swoop and swerve in woozy slo-mo as they go about their business tethered to the station, like foetuses still attached to their umbilical cords. The movie’s final sequence hints at some massive cosmic rebirth; a sense that these people are the first or last human beings in the universe, like something by Kubrick.
Sandra Bullock plays a scientific engineer, Dr Ryan Stone, who after six months’ specialist Nasa training has been allowed into space to attach a high-tech new scanning device to the Hubble telescope. She is under the watchful supervision of Matt Kowalski, a genial and grizzled space veteran played by George Clooney. The voice of Houston mission control is played by Ed Harris, in playful homage to Ron Howard’s 1995 space-disaster classic Apollo 13. Only this time it is him telling them about the problem. Soon, a terrifying situation unfolds.
Director and co-writer Cuarón brilliantly manages to create both awe at his glorious space vistas, and knuckle-gobbling tension at what’s happening in the foreground. It’s like a bank heist in Reims cathedral – in space. You could find yourself asthmatically gasping with rapture and excitement at the same time. After it was over, I was 10 minutes into my tube ride home before I remembered to exhale.
Since its release, various specialist observers have unsportingly emerged to say that the science involved in Gravity is fanciful and wrong. No matter. What makes Gravity so gripping, and so novel, is that it behaves as if what everyone is doing is happening in a world of commonplace fact: like a movie about two drivers on a runaway train or hot-air balloon. A movie set in space tends to trigger an assumption: that it is set in the future (although not the case with Star Wars). If it is not like Apollo 13, about the bygone era of space exploration carried out by guys in quaint crewcuts, then it is going to be set in some madeup futurist world about space exploration in aluminium-foil costumes and spacecraft doors opening and closing with zhhh-zhhh sounds – a world that may or may not involve extraterrestrial creatures, but which importantly and patently doesn’t exist; a movie whose effects depend, at least partly, on the assumption that what is being shown is not true.
Gravity isn’t like that. It’s not sci-fi, more a contemporary space thriller. It’s happening in the here and now. That is why it is so absorbing, although you may have to abolish your own scepticism-gravity – suspending disbelief at the idea that Stone’s training would have allowed her to be reasonably familiar with the control panels of Russian and Chinese spacecraft with their Cyrillic and Chinese letterings. Of course, these aspects may have been cunningly devised by Cuarón so that his movie can blast off in Russian and Chinese territories.
The movie draws, broadly, on the style, if not the substance, of that dystopian tradition stretching from Kubrick’s 2001 (1968): it is comparable to Alien (1979) or Dark Star (1974) or Silent Running (1972), in that it adopts something of their downbeat, quasi-realist behaviour, applied to something notionally real; it has some of their flashes of humour and horror and tension, but it is without cynicism or satire, without monsters or talking computers. Incidentally, the deeply scary question of what happens if you accidentally become detached from your spacecraft and float irreversibly off into space brought back memories of Brian de Palma’s little-liked Mission to Mars (2000). But importantly, it’s supposed to be real.
Clooney effectively concedes star status to Bullock and Stone’s face, as she finally reveals the personal anguish she’s brought up to space inside her, becomes gaunt and waxy and agonised: a very real 3D image of pure human pain. When she cries in zero-gravity, with real tears floating away from the face, it is a heartstopping spectacle. Kowalski’s gallantry and Stone’s yearning are compelling and unexpectedly romantic.
Is Gravity very deep or very shallow? Neither. It is a brilliant and inspired movie-cyclorama, requiring neither gravity nor gravitas. This is a glorious imaginary creation that engulfs you utterly, helped by superlative visual effects design from Tim Webber, cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and production design by Andy Nicholson. As you sit in the cinema auditorium, you too will feel the entertainment G-forces puckering and rippling your face.
7 Nov 2013
Watch an astronaut drifting through space for long enough and eventually you notice how much they look like a newborn baby. The oxygen helmet makes their head bigger, rounder and cuter; their hands grasp eagerly at whatever happens to be passing; their limbs are made fat and their movements simple by the spacesuit’s cuddly bulk. They tumble head-over-heels like tripping toddlers or simply bob there in amniotic suspension. Even the lifeline that keeps them tethered to their ship has a pulsing, umbilical aspect.
Gravity, the new Alfonso Cuarón picture, is a heart-achingly tender filmabout the miracle of motherhood, and the billion-to-one odds against any of us being here, astronauts or not. It’s also a totally absorbing, often overpowering spectacle – a $100 million 3D action movie in whichSandra Bullock and George Clooney play two Hollywood-handsome spacefarers, fighting for their lives 375 miles above the Earth’s crust.
A series of captions over the opening titles reminds us that this is a dead zone: no oxygen or air pressure, and nothing to carry sound. “Life in space is impossible,” the final message tells us, as the cinema shakes with Steven Price’s resonant score, and then suddenly falls quiet.
For Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock), a mission specialist in orbit for the first time, the lack of noise is welcome. She’s a medical engineer called up by NASA to install new software on to the Hubble Telescope, but also a mother in mourning for her four-year-old daughter, whom she lost in a senseless accident, and the silence enfolds her like a comfort blanket.
The shuttle pilot is Matt Kowalski (Clooney), a divorcee and veteran of zero-G. While Stone works on Hubble, he boosts around her playfully, piping country and western ballads over the team’s intercom and telling stories about his unfortunate love-life. (During a previous space flight, while Kowalski was hanging in the sky above Texas, Mrs Kowalski was on the motorway down below, absconding with a lawyer in her husband’s sports car.)
“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” Kowalski jokes, although by the end of the opening shot, which runs unbroken for a progressively astonishing 17 minutes, his fears have proven well-founded. On the other side of the planet, Russia has detonated an old spy satellite, and the shrapnel is hurtling towards our heroes at bullet-speed.
Cuarón is no stranger to the extended single take, as anyone who has seen Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También and his Harry Potter film, Prisoner of Azkaban, will know. But he outdoes himself here – and then out-outdoes himself, with the camera weaving and knotting around the astronauts and their craft as cleanly as a needle stitching silk. Then when the debris bears down on them, everything on screen is either smashed to pieces or else swings crazily off its axis, and you swear you can feel the cinema lurching away beneath you.
Like Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris are obvious touchstones, Cuarón understands the power of the shot. He doesn’t just show us the impact and its aftermath, his camera explains it to us; tracking objects as they crash into and ricochet off one another with terrifying solidity, then holding on Stone and Kowalski as they plummet away from the wreckage and into nothingness. Cuarón holds a close-up on Stone’s face as she gulps at her falling air supply, and then moves closer still – and suddenly we become Stone, gasping at oxygen that’s barely there and watching Earth spin into the distance through the glass bubble of her helmet.
In her subsequent struggle to stay alive, Stone’s status as a bereaved mother is absolutely key. That tragedy has dampened her survival instinct – the force that draws one human body instinctively towards another – but the disaster reignites it, and pulls her, and us, towards the film’s thrilling and spiritually attuned finale.
Cuarón and his son Jonás, who co-wrote the script, have given Bullock the role of her career, and she returns the favour with the performance of a lifetime. Clooney, meanwhile, is exactly as you’d hope Clooney in space would be: cool-headed but still flirtatious, with a muscovado drawl that suggests he’s a couple of Old Fashioneds to the good. A cast like that could overwhelm a film with less in its head, veins and soul, but Gravity swings perfectly in the balance between stars and cosmos. This is one of the films of the year.