While peril and the clash of man versus the natural world has been explored thoroughly on film in recent times, such as in The Gray or 127 Hours, the inky black void of space remains uncharted. Master Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity takes queues from the adventure genre, but takes them literally out of this world to stunning effect.
Less man versus nature, more man versus nothing, Gravity explores a more primordial feeling of dread and isolation by framing the action almost entirely within the zero-g surrounds of space. Medical Officer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowlaski (George Clooney) find themselves stranded in the vastness of high orbit when working on the Hubble Telescope. Debris from a defunct satellite shot down by a Russian Missile rips towards them in a deadly hail of metal, leaving the pair adrift in the coldness of space.
What follows is 90 minutes of pure tension. While the threat of drowning or being stranded in the desert has often been explored on screen to terrifying affect, there’s a feeling of the stakes being raised to vast degree with Gravity. Where there’s the slim chance of rescue on the open seas or deep within the Sahara, Space is an entirely different matter. This is played upon during Gravity by the brilliant stroke of using a skeleton cast.
While Ed Harris supports as the voice of mission control in Houston hundreds of miles below, Bullock and Clooney are left to carry the film. The pair rises to the challenge with aplomb. Clooney has charisma to spare, as usual, as Kowalski who offers Dr. Stone a reassuring, confident presence – that is until more calamities befalls the pair in one of the film’s most heart wrenching scenes.
But while Clooney is great in support, this is entirely Sandra Bullock’s film. We’re with her every giant step of the way as she floats, twists, bumps and turns through the void enduring pitfall after pitfall with a combination of nervousness and a growing confidence. It’s a tough task to hold an entire film on your shoulders, but Bullock is such an engaging presence throughout Gravity that if she isn’t the recipient of many golden statues come award season it’ll be an astronomical oversight.
Painstakingly crafted using a mixture of CGI, practical effects and digital tweaks, Curaon has crafted, along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, one of this decade’s most visually stunning films. Earth is beautiful from orbit, but it’s the all-encompassing dark that frames the action creates the most gut feelings; feelings of awe, insignificance and terror.
The camera work is particularly amazing. The feeling of zero gravity and weightlessness is explored using Cuaron’s signature long takes that dive, turn and spin with each trial that befalls Stone. It’s as though we’re right there with her in the cold dark. One particular shot plays with our point of view as we find ourselves looking through Stone’s visor in one moment, and then switching outside to gauge her reaction in the next in one liquid motion. Cuaron had already displayed terrific visual fair in his previous efforts, especially Children of Men, but Gravity confirms his place as a visionary of Kubrickan proportions.
Anchored by two amazing performances and enhanced by simply stunning photography, Gravity is contender for not only film of the year, but for film of the decade. And with healthy box office performance, perhaps it heralds a return to the more intelligent, experimental side of science fiction filmmaking.