‘Gravity manages the considerable feat of creating a feeling of horrific claustrophobia amidst an endless sea of empty space. It’s superbly tense.’ This soul-searching disaster sci-fi deserves all the praise it can get, says a wide-eyed ALEX KEMP.
Before Gravity, no film had ever truly captured weightlessness.
There were recently reports of cinemas warning audience members of possible seasickness before screenings of Captain Phillips; perhaps the same precautions should be taken here. Gravity feels like one tracking continuous shot in which the camera swirls and eddies between the vast chasm of space, the blue beacon of Earth, and the faces of its two lead characters, struck by wonder and alarm. The cuts are entirely seamless, giving the impression that the camera is as wide-eyed and transfixed as the audience.
Our heroes, Dr Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Dr Kowalski (George Clooney) are astronauts cast off into space. Unexpectedly, perhaps – and here comes more irony – they also seem entirely down to Earth. Kowalski’s first thought after the satellite collision is that ‘half of North America just lost their Facebook’. In keeping with the tradition of most great space movies, from Alien to 2001, this film recognises that its characters’ role is to give a sense of perspective. We would feel so much less involved when presented with the grand old sight of the Earth from space, were it not for the fact that somewhere on that orb is our home, replete with the people and things, routines and responsibilities, that once seemed so huge. At one point, Dr Stone makes reference to a tiny accident in her home life, the repercussions of which were as devastating as those of the random calamity that opens the film. It is this drawing of comparisons between the big and the small, this ruthlessly telescopic sensibility, which carries the film.
And yet, for all the soul-searching and lingering on vistas, let’s not forget that this is first and foremost a thriller and a disaster movie. Bullock’s breathlessness is infectious, as we are plunged inside her helmet looking out onto sheer spinning blackness. Gravity manages the considerable feat of creating a feeling of horrific claustrophobia amidst an endless sea of empty space. It’s superbly tense. What’s more, the admirably taught running time – a rare thing of late – is well judged; the film never stretches the premise beyond its limits, and daringly restricts itself to the two characters’ story, without losing its nerve by cutting to elsewhere. Personally, I would have liked the film to end ten minutes before it does, at a bleaker but more beautiful point in the film. Yet it would be churlish to argue that this detracts from the film’s achievements – how refreshing it is to find an awards season film that does not out-stay its welcome for a good half hour or more.
Director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men and the best Harry Potter film) has crafted a film that marries jaw-clenching action with astonishing visual clout. It’s films like Gravity that make Cambridge’s lack of IMAX screens a real pain in the ass; I saw it soaked through with rain on a cinema screen barely bigger than a telly. It might even be worth leaving the Bubble for the weekend just to track down an IMAX: this film really needs to be seen on a screen as large as possible, with an ear-smacking sound-system and in full 3D. For films as lauded as Gravity, particularly those which have garnered so much buzz even before their release – James Cameron named it ‘the best space film ever done – a critical backlash seems almost inevitable. Let’s hope, though, that the cynics keep their claws in. Gravity deserves all the praise it can get.