A heart-stopping tumble through space, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a juggernaut of a survival movie, crashing down to Earth with a glorious bang.
Enter The Void by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There are two killers in Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film of astronauts lost in space – space, with its inconvenient deep freezes and lack of oxygen, and of course gravity. And while it’s the skin-scorching and bone-grinding pyrotechnics of re-entering the atmosphere and returning to Earth that gives Cuarón’s film its name, Gravity is for the most part a weightless, space-bound survival thriller. But with all the hallmarks of a horror film, from its concatenation of horrors (from meteoric debris showers and unanchored drifting in space to a fuelless space capsule and a nerve-busting break through the atmosphere) to its space station corpses bobbing weightlessly into shot, Gravity is the space chiller par excellence. And with its heroine’s dramatic final-reel stand on terra firma, with Sandra Bullock filmed monumentally from below, Gravity sees the final girl genre thrills enter a very womanly maturity.
Biomedical engineer Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first mission in space, accompanied by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), eager to smash his previous extra-vehicular spacewalking record on this, his final mission. And when Mission Control (Ed Harris) warns of a cloud of debris hurtling in their direction following the explosion of an unused satellite, he has every chance of making it. For when the rubble hits, Stone becomes untethered from the Hubble telescope and goes floating off into space. She’s rescued by Kowalski with his jetpack, but when they return to the space shuttle, they find it burnt out and the crew dead. And with no other option but to thrust their way to the International Space Station in orbit 100 kilometres away, Stone and Kowalski, losing both oxygen and power, are clinging on to whatever they can find. For dear life.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Ryan Stone, like her name, should fall back to Earth like a stone. But Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a survival thriller like no other. Unlike Castaway, Life Of Pi or even All Is Lost, this is no one-handed performance piece for Sandra Bullock, despite her weightless gravitas and lonely ten-hour stints on set in a rig designed to give the effect of zero gravity. For Gravity is style over substance – pure fireworks, revelling in its digital effects and textural delights – with the full majesty of Earth reflected in Stone and Kowalski’s space helmets and her tears floating upwards to fill the screen. A visual rejoinder to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and its waltzing planets, it’s blockbuster storytelling at its purest, spinning from one punishing climax to the next, and seat-grippingly engrossing to boot. And despite some minor-key references to prayer and faith, Gravity doesn’t have the moralising backstory or theological philosophising of other survival movies, contenting itself with the will-she-won’t-she rollercoaster of story.
Our only moral or emotional engagement is with Ryan, who on Earth drives around at night aimlessly after work, stuck in a stasis of grief following the death of her four-year-old daughter, and who, as she reaches her most suicidal, thanks to a hallucination starring her chirpy colleague Kowalski, finds the human courage to continue. There are religious overtones to her rebirth (spinning like a foetus in front of the circular door of the ISS’s womblike airlock) and her journey back from the living death of oxygen-less space to life, in the prayer she whispers to herself at rock bottom, but for the most part Gravity is just a question of hanging on – to abandoned parachute cords, to each other and to life.
Cuarón’s film is a homage to the human spirit – its indefatigable will to survive made concrete in epic close-up on the shores of Lake Powell. It’s surprisingly spare, albeit in glorious IMAX 3D, with a disembodied voice from Mission Control and performances from George Clooney and Sandra Bullock disguised mostly behind space suits. It’s perhaps clichéd in its grief-stricken backstory and simplistic in its chain of inevitable catastrophes, but operatic in its endless flow of thrills, bumps and plastic pleasures, Gravity sees Cuarón at the height of his game. Its script is taut and funny, with a devilish pleasure for detail – all floating teeth and abandoned bodies. Weightlessly gripping, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity won’t reveal much about this little blue planet of ours, but it sure is one hell of a ride back.
Gravity is released on 7th November 2013 in the UK