You will have seen many, many glowing reviews for Gravity by now. Each one praises its technical achievements, beautiful visuals, brilliant direction, wonderful use of sound and solid performances from the gorgeous leads George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. This is going to be one of those reviews, for which I make no apology.
Naysayers will tell you that the plot is thin and there is not enough to sustain interest. I would argue that those people clearly weren’t paying attention.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a medical engineer who has found herself being drafted in by NASA to help them with a project out in space. Scientist first and astronaut second, she’s had the basic training, and this is her first time up in the giant, endless, terrifying void. She is joined by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) an affable, experienced astronaut who has a neat line in “I have a bad feeling about this” disaster stories. Yes, there are other crew members, but they don’t last long, as a Russian satellite is blown up, causing debris to ricochet around the Earth, and taking out both Stone’s fellow crew members and their shuttle. Stone finds herself untethered and floating free in the vast expanse of space, spinning endlessly with dwindling oxygen supplies.
The concept of Gravity alone would be terrifying enough to sustain the whole film effectively. During those first moments when Stone finds herself alone the camera whirls, not with her or with the orbit of the Earth, but on its own bewildering trajectory. It very nearly induced a panic attack in me, the feeling of disorientation was so effective (I also saw it in 3D to add to my nausea and anxiety).
So how does a story featuring two people, set against a backdrop of staggering beauty and/or nothingness sustain itself for a feature length film? Some brilliant technical tricks create some of the most incredible visuals, managing to pull off a convincing impression that they actually filmed it in space (kudos to UK based Framestore for this). The soundtrack (including a great use of silence) effectively works as an extra character, punctuating scenes that could have been bland and making them feel epic. The inclusion of Stone’s tragic back-story means the film isn’t a straight-forward battle against the elements, but also a metaphor for her own internal emotional struggle, and that’s what makes this film so strong. If seen just as a “woman floats about in space” in may well not be the classic many people are claiming, but when you see it as a film about loss it is elevated to a new level.
The whole film is like being on the world’s most emotionally intense rollercoaster, a visceral experience unlike anything I had seen or felt in cinema before. It nearly gave me a panic attack and reduced me to tears, but ultimately is uplifting, liberating and made me glad to have my feet firmly on the ground.
Go and see it now, and see it on the biggest screen possible and in 3D. Brilliant.
(Trivia fans: Aningaaq, the man Dr. Stone talks to on the shortwave radio, is the main character of the short film Aningaaq directed by Jonás Cuarón. In that movie he is an Inuit fisherman with a dog sled and a baby daughter, camping on the ice over a frozen fjord.- Ref IMDB)