Gravity is one of those films you go the movies for.
A triumph for both Alfonso Cuarón, who acts as both director, producer and co-writer (with son Jonás Cuarón) and Sandra Bullock (Dr Ryan Stone), who spends much of the film alone, lost in the silent cold of space 600km above a faraway but stunningly beautiful Earth, it is a singularly immersive experience.
From the opening frames where we are treated to the awe-inspiring grandeur of the slowly revolving blue and swirly white of our planetary home, as snatches of radio chatter between Houston and the astronauts play across the edges of our awareness, through to the later desperate helter-skelter scramble for survival, it is never less than utterly engaging.
Much of this initial absorption can be sheeted home to the devastatingly beautiful cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki who quickly establishes both a sense of the vastness of space and our insignificance in the face of its immense reach.
While the Earth, which dominates this epic view, is captivating, something that Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a wise-cracking veteran of multiple missions, remarks on more than once (most poignantly when he is adrift in space watching the sunrise over the Ganges), its dominating presence is unsettling too, reminding everyone but especially a nervous Dr Stone, just how far from home and safety they really are.
Their vulnerability, masked by constant, jocular conversations with mission control at Houston and the nearby presence of their ride home, the space shuttle Explorer, is brought home in brutal fashion when a Russian attempt to blow one of their satellites out of orbit with a missile going terribly wrong.
Setting off a devastatingly high speed destructive chain wave of debris, that in short order destroys most satellites and the space shuttle Explorer, and causes the evacuation of the International Space Station and the Chinese facility Tiangong, it leaves Kowalski and Stone the lone survivors among their crew, at the mercy of an environment that is inimical to life.
Logic suggests that surviving any sort of disaster on this order of magnitude, stripped of almost all means of effecting that survival would be a near impossibility but the genius of Cuarón senior and junior’s script, and Bullock’s gift for making achieving the impossible seem both heartbreakingly human, and immensely heroic all at once, is that it makes you believe there is some means of escape.
It is just a matter of finding it, when everything says that it isn’t there to be found.
In between debilitating bouts of panic, and resignation to her almost inevitable fate, Stone discovers that while the human will to survive is powerful, it is not immune to being compromised and challenged every step of the way.
In that sense, her battle to beat the odds is not just with the harsh elements in which she finds herself adrift, but also with herself as she alternates between grim determination and an almost overwhelming sense that all is lost.
It’s no surprise that steely resolve wins out but what sets Gravity apart from many other inspiring stories of survival against the odds is that it doesn’t yield one gram of gut-wrenching realism in the pursuit of its tension-filled and visually arresting storytelling.
It gamely offers up characters and means of escape to the merciless capriciousness of space, leaving you surprised and elated at every turn, unsure how successful Stone’s race to the finish line, assuming there is one, is going to be.
You want her to get back home but this wishful thinking is constantly challenged by graphic reminders throughout that the odds are well and truly stacked against her.
The movie is, in this regard, a good old fashioned find an obstacle, defeat an obstacle movie but one in which stunning cinematography, perfectly calibrated direction and Bullock’s ability to project aching vulnerability and tenacity of spirit, sometimes in the same scene, raise it considerably well above the usual tired movie-of-the-week-esque triumph against implacable, unyielding foes.
It is inspiring yes, and beautifully dangerous too, but what stands out at the end is how audacious a piece of storytelling it is, never once yielding to the easy sensationalist way out (though the ending teeters a little too close to this for comfort in part), and relying on Bullock’s ability to convey a woman both overwhelmed by what she faces but determined to overcome it.
Gravity is, in the end, a visually stunning, narratively bewitching, utterly subsuming experience, a timely reminder that the mighty hand of nature cares little for our hubris, especially in the enormous and merciless reaches of space.
*If you’re fascinated like I am in by how they achieved the breathtaking visual imagery used in the movie, which required the invention of a whole range of new technologies, you should check out this amazing official featurette below …