I wrote a piece a while back on how Alfonso Cuarón showed signs of becoming one of the 21st Century’s foremost directors of science fiction – up there with Duncan Jones, Neill Blomkamp, and Shane Carruth – just on the strength of 2006’s Children of Men.
Now, seven years on, anticipation has been stratospheric surrounding Cuarón’s return to the genre with Gravity, a cotton-mouthed journey into the near reaches of space and the desperate attempts of two astronauts to make it back. It also happens to be Cuarón’s first film since Children of Men, and, based on the technical prowess gravity displays, it seems every second of the intervening period has made its mark on the screen.
Sandra Bullock – who, lest we forget, won the Oscar for Best Actress for The Blind Side – plays the severely named Dr. Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer and Mission Specialist on her space walk. Accompanying her is the charming and garrulous Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, who, let’s remember, won an Best Supporting Oscar for Syriana back in 2005 but criminally missed out on a Best Actor for Up in the Air in favor of Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.
Anyway, things go wrong, as well they must: the Hubble Space Telescope, which Stone and Kowalski are in the process of servicing, is blasted with space debris, which killers their engineer and sends Stone spinning off into the void of space with Kowalski swooping in on a jet-pack chair to save her.
All of this happens in the first 15 minutes, however, with the majority of Gravity‘s run-time concerning the survivor’s struggles to make it back to Earth. Technically stunning, NASA praised the film for its realism in depicting the procedures involved in space travel, but it’s the photo-realism of the special effects that most compelled my attention.
As Cuarón’s camera swoops through space or cuts in close within Stone’s helmet to gauge her terrified reaction, the impression is one of total, perilous freedom: if you thought Sam Rockwell seemed isolated in Moon, even at 1/500th of the distance, Gravity feels all the more out-there. The plot, however, is nevertheless fairly basic.
Ultimately, Gravity conforms to a pretty standard mission-driven story-line; after all, Stone and Kowalski’s one goal is to get home, by any means necessary. Clooney is his usual likeable self, though Bullock’s protagonist is more of a cipher: we understand where she comes from, even where she lives – Lake Zurich in Illinois – but who she is with her (space) boots off, beyond being vulnerable and subdued, is left unexplored.
Thematically, Gravity is about the need to immerse one’s self in life – after all, if you’re not going to take part in the human experience you might as well be in orbit, amirite? There are definite, perhaps slightly ironic touches of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the film’s treatment of Stone’s reconnecting with humanity, especially in the final shot.
Gravity was praised by James Cameron as “the best space film ever done”, and, while I believe that particular accolade may belong to Kubrick, it certainly feels, in some regards, like a more worthy prequel to the Alien franchise than bloody Prometheus (*shudder*). The devastation the space debris wreaks leads to body horror rivaling the original chest-burster scene for memorability.
When Stone and Kowalski peer into a break in the side of the space shuttle to check for survivors, it brings to mind the famous jump moment from Jaws. At any moment you expect Ben Gardner’s head to come rolling out. Gravity is best when at its most tense.
Universally adored by the critics and already in the black just a week after release, Gravity has proven something of a phenomenon. A white-knuckle ride of a film – Kowalski barking instructions at Stone through her helmet brought to mind more than one Disney attraction – the film may bear more resemblance to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, or, in one development, Mission to Mars, than the definitive space film, 2001, but its nevertheless a unique cinematic experience, if not a uniformly great film. Cuarón’s direction is superlative and Steven Price’s score gets under your skin.
A breathtaking portrayal of human frailty against the vacuum of space – opening text reminds us that “Life in space is impossible”… – and survival against impossible odds, in spite of my reservations, Gravity is stunning. Also – and this may be the first and last time you hear me say this – see it in 3D.