I really hate seeing a film (or any creative work, for that matter) described as an ‘experience’. As if it were a superlative, some mark of enormous distinction. It’s not – anything is an experience. Having your molars capped is an experience. Eating banoffee pie is an experience. Pants are an experience.
And when I use the word in such a way, I hate it even more. So imagine my self-loathing when I tell you that Gravity is most definitely an experience. An awe-inspiring one. It is quite literally the most enthralling, tense and visually spectacular work of science fiction I have ever seen. That’s a superlative.
Gravity takes place in the cold depths of space – an environment, it is quick to point out, where life is an absolute impossibility. Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first expedition, accompanied by veteran astronaut Lt Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). During the final stages of their mission to make adjustments to the Hubble Telescope, their station is blown apart by debris from an exploding Russian satellite, and Stone is sent hurtling into space.
It’s a simple premise, readily established. This is not a film driven by a lot of exposition, but really an examination of Stone herself: her intense psychological journey, her grief, her terror and her determination to survive in the face of utter catastrophe. For the most part, she is very much alone out here – watching her claw desperately at the side of a space station, gasping from oxygen deprivation, trying to find a hold as she slips away is often unbearably tense. And seeing her cry silent tears in a drifting escape pod, wondering if anyone on the planet below will grieve for her, is agonising.
But the true impact of this material, the overwhelming key to the film’s success, lies in its cinematography. What Cuarón does with his camera is nothing short of breath-taking – he will take us from a distant perspective, Stone just a tumbling speck framed against the vast Earth, and draw us in, closer and closer, until we are inside her space helmet, against her cheek, witnessing her terrified expression and looking out through the glass as the entire universe spins around us.
At one point, as she is tethered to Lt Kowalski, being yanked along behind him, the camera moves into first-person; it snaps so convincingly in all directions that I felt it in the cinema, the cord pulling savagely against my chest. Each unbroken take lasts for twenty minutes or more, from soaring long shots to extreme close ups, illustrating at once the enormity of outer space and its psychological effect on the spacefarer.
Gravity is a labour of love for director/co-writer/co-director Alfonso Cuarón, who spent several years planning and orchestrating its production. The sheer logistics of shooting were unbelievable; Sandra Bullock spent up to ten hours at a time being filmed in a tight mechanical cage, held by a series of robotic arms designed to simulate floating in zero gravity. The movement of these arms had to be programmed to match every second of Cuarón’s direction, as did the movement of the camera itself. But it pays off: his precision and relentless planning is evident in every frame. Steven Price’s score should also receive mention here – it’s perfectly suited to the scope and isolation of space, huge orchestral swells punctuated by periods of absolute silence.
The final architect of Gravity is, of course, the woman herself. I’m happy to say that Sandra Bullock was, for me, the movie’s biggest surprise of all; she gives an incredibly intimate performance here, especially one filmed in a bulky space suit wrapped in mechanical appendages inside a claustrophobic metal cage. George Clooney is himself as usual, all cheeky charm and gravelly eloquence, but his is very much a small supporting role. Sandra carries this film from beginning to end, delivering a series of monologues with true poignancy, her pain and grim determination written in every expression.
In all honesty, I’ve only ever previously enjoyed her in light comedy like Miss Congeniality – though she’s now an Oscar winner, I’ve never really considered her a dramatic actress. But I certainly have a new respect for her now, and I expect that this film will lead to similar Academy recognition.
If I have a single gripe about Gravity, it’s with a particular scene that occurs in the last quarter or so; it’s a moment that wanders just a little too far into self-indulgence and sentimentality. It’s not bad by any standards, but compared to the impeccable orchestration of the rest of the movie, it’s a little jarring and (to me) unrealistic. I won’t explicitly describe this scene here – I don’t want to give away any details – but you’ll certainly recognise it.
Beyond that, I cannot describe this film with anything but unmitigated praise. It’s a work that, more than anything else in the genre before it, captures the true nature of space, its limitlessness and hostility, its glory and tranquility. And by its turbulent conclusion, it also illustrates the true nature of humanity, our will to live even where life is an absolute impossibility. Gravity is an experience, and while it’s still showing in 3D on a very very large cinema screen, you’d be absolutely crazy not to experience it.
Honestly, it beats the shit out of banoffee pie.