By Marty Mulrooney
Gravity is a science fiction action thriller/drama directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men). Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a mission specialist who finds herself lost in space after the mid-orbit destruction of the Space Shuttle Explorer. With oxygen running out and a deadly chain reaction of space debris orbiting every 90 minutes, Dr. Stone must work with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) to overcome extreme adversity and return to Earth.
The opening of Gravity, a breathtaking continuous 17-minute shot that will have audiences wide-eyed in awe as they take in the staggering view of Earth from high up above, is the closest the average filmgoer will ever get to actual space travel. A spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope is shown in all its glory, with Matt Kowalski (Clooney) zipping around with a thruster pack as he wisecracks and reminisces to Mission Control in Houston.
It’s Kowalski’s final mission, and Dr. Ryan Stone’s first. As they service Hubble, the combination of pioneering state of the art special effects, IMAX immersion and 3D that actually works (and this coming from a venomous hater of three-dimensional films) achieves a wonderful effect – you’ll forget you’re watching a Hollywood movie. This is a Jurassic Park moment for visual effects. The bar has been raised and dodgy CGI just isn’t going to cut it anymore from now on. From the very beginning, you’re in zero gravity right alongside Kowalski and Stone. It’s exhilarating, slightly terrifying and almost unbearably beautiful.
This sense of realism and tangibility is precisely why, when the shit hits the fan – or to be more precise, the Russian missile strike hits a defunct satellite – the film is so panic inducing. It starts innocently enough: Houston reports the situation as it arises but reassures the astronauts that they shouldn’t have anything to worry about. The mission proceeds as normal, with Kowalski and Stone engaging in small talk as they work. Then Houston sends another message: abort the mission. Moments later… mere words cannot accurately describe the carnage that ensues as a cloud of space debris rips through the Space Shuttle Explorer and the Hubble Telescope.
Dr. Stone finds herself flung into the infinite blackness of space with such momentum that it causes her to tumble over and over as she desperately gulps for air – depleting her supply – and cries out for help. There is no sound in space (which makes this situation all the more terrifying), so instead we’re left with the heavy breathing of the astronauts, their panicked radio chatter and the ethereal and ominous score by composer Steven Price. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a panic attack and from this moment onwards the film never lets up – it’s a shot of pure adrenaline, the possibility of the most lonely death imaginable always weighing heavy in the otherwise weightless atmosphere. You’re right there inside that spacesuit with Dr. Stone – and not in a good way. You’ll will her to survive, to not give up. She has to make it back to Earth… right?
Gravity isn’t just a disaster movie with incredible special effects, although it certainly ticks those boxes. The script is tight and does an incredible amount with seemingly little dialogue. Rather than have Dr. Stone fighting to get back home to family or friends, it is slowly revealed through her interactions with Kowalski that she was probably more isolated on Earth than she ever was looking down at it from space. It’s a refreshing change of pace and direction from the usual Hollywood tropes. Why should Dr. Stone fight for survival if she has nothing and no one to truly care about?
Clooney shines as the veteran astronaut who keeps his head while all those around him are losing theirs – some more than others – and it’s hard to imagine another actor lending the role such gravitas. He’s there to tell Stone off when she fails to follow orders, and he’s there to pick her back up again when the only way left to go appears to be down. Their chemistry is real and never forced. He believes in her when her own self-belief has long since waned, withered and died. Bullock as Ryan is incredible – there aren’t many actresses who can make barking like a dog sound poignant, but she pulls it off here. Special effects can only take a film so far and Bullock is the emotional core of the entire experience. Her character is reborn in the face of death and overcomes incredible odds to fight for survival and return to Earth in one piece.
Oscar-worthy performances, out of this world special effects and a rousing score make Gravity a strong contender for film of the year 2013 and the best science fiction film since Moon in 2009. It’s the kind of film that comes along and changes the cinematic landscape for the better. Any liberties taken with reality can be forgiven – this is what going to the cinema is all about. Gravity will pull you in until you’re tumbling head over heels and won’t let you crash back down to earth until the very last frame. A beautiful, surprisingly touching masterpiece that needs to be seen to be believed.
10 OUT OF 10