Anticipation is high for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, and deservedly so – it’s an intimate and richly emotional story, almost primal in its themes and ideas, but told on a scale that’s both grand and hushed.
The technical virtuosity displayed by the Children of Men director, with invaluable assistance by that film’s gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, is breathtaking stuff, with the opening shot one unbroken take that lasts 15 minutes or so, swirling and swooping through space, introducing the characters while providing an array of viewpoints that lay out the shining beauty and intimidating vastness of the environment they’re negotiating.
I’m normally in two minds about such shots – I can appreciate and even admire the ambition and diligence that goes into their planning and execution but sometimes find myself a little detached by their showiness. It can seem more like a clip for a showreel than something that actually enhances the storytelling or moves the plot forward. But Gravity’s opening sequence moves with such languid, lyrical beauty while offering the audience with information it needs to know that it pretty much sets a new benchmark in this regard. It’s a magnificent start to a movie.
The story is a simple one. A mission 650 or so kilometres above the earth is thrown into jeopardy when catastrophic damage to a satellite sets off a chain reaction resulting in debris hurtling through the void at high speed. The shuttle that was giving scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) their ride home is destroyed; the ensuing turmoil sees the pair untethered and floating free in space.
There are still space stations nearby but there are several factors to take into account – reaching them, hoping they remain undamaged, coping with the ongoing waves of “space shrapnel”, navigating their way back home. Every minute presents a new challenge. And as the film states at the very beginning: “Life in space is impossible.”
Gravity is thrilling in ways I’d almost forgotten movies could be. I didn’t realise how inured I’d become to 3D, thanks to wave after wave of shitty post-conversion jobs that added close to nothing to the experience, until I found myself flinching as scraps of metal flew towards me.
But that trickery is only one small part of the overall effect it had. Cuaron expertly modulates the tension, building to crescendos before offering brief periods of relief, then starting the process all over again. It’s masterful. (And mention must be made of Steven Price’s score, lushly and stirringly orchestral at times, propulsive and foreboding at others.)
But it’s a human story first and foremost, a story about the will to live. There’s an old adage about storytelling that you put a character in a tree and then proceed to throw rocks at them for 90 minutes – that’s why Gravity does, and does well.
But if you don’t care about the character being pelted with rocks, what’s the point? Caring about Stone and Kowalski is easy, partially due to the deft, effective screenplay by Cuaron and his son Jonas but mainly because of some very astute casting and a pair of truly strong performances.
Clooney’s relaxed charm and underlying air of confidence and capability (he’s essentially playing Liz Lemon’s dream date, Astronaut Mike Dexter) provides an ideal counterbalance to the reserve, panic and ultimate resolve shown by Bullock, who gives a performance that quietly, subtly runs the gamut of emotion. She’s incredible. So is Gravity. See it on the biggest screen you can, then go see it again.