This is not a film, it’s an experience and it doesn’t just live up to the hype but in some ways exceeds it. Like Lawrence of Arabia or Avatar, Gravity is one of those rare spectacles that reminds us what large and loud cinema screens are for. This has to be seen in 3D. At worst it’s impressive, at best it’s overwhelming.
There’s barely a narrative here making its success both dramatically and as a box office success all the more impressive. The whole thing unravels in real time and for the bulk of it is from the point of view of one character. It does however have an archetypal theme– someone gets stranded and tries to find their way home. In that sense it’s a road movie. Except there’s no roads.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski. This is Kowalski’s last tour of Space, a cool headed, reassuring veteran overseeing Stone’s first spacewalk as she attempts to repair the Hubble telescope. These first scenes get us familiar not only with the amazing view but with the speed and sense of movement possible in a zero gravity environment. It’s clumsy and awkward yet fluid and vertiginous. Ryan quite rightly feels nauseous and scared.
All goes well until all hell breaks loose at which point it barely lets up until the final frame. A distant satellite breaks apart and its shrapnel like fragments tear through their mission all but destroying everything around them. In the first of many great set pieces Ryan is flung into space spinning out of control. We stay on her face for an eternity as she panics inside her suit, the Earth spinning wildly behind. In the first of many ingenious visual devices the camera almost subliminally enters her helmet and turns around, allowing us to see things from her panic stricken point of view. Now the terror begins.
She is temporarily rescued by Kowalksi and tethered together they make their way to the International Space Station (ISS) some distance away. To add to the tension Kowalski’s steering fuel is running out and Ryan’s oxygen is rapidly depleting.
So far so good. Up till now I was quite enjoying it and thinking ‘this isn’t too shabby’. But once they reach the ISS a new set of problems occur at which point
Gravity really takes off. Suddenly the visuals and drama exceed everything that’s been. The dial gets turned up to eleven and from this point on I was curled up into a ball of tension almost shouting at the screen about the location of a handy rail or loose strap to grab onto.
By this stage the film we’re getting used to being immersed in its 3D zero gravity rollercoaster visuals, principally of Ryan being seen in relation to the world below or of various objects and structures floating around.
But once we adapt to this it becomes all the more important we root for our main character. In this director Cuaron has struck gold in casting Bullock. She stops becoming a famous actress in a space suit into someone we care for and as her zero gravity tears floated towards me my own started to form in my earth bound sockets. Bullock really is quite something in this.
For the final hour this is her story and the drama alternates continuously between extreme jeopardy and some beautifully handled moments of respite and quiet reflection. Some are reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apollo 13 and the quiet long pauses where she tries to justify survival got me all misty eyed whereas the dramatic action interspersing these had me genuinely frightened.
Overall, despite the impressive technology on display and the technology behind creating the display this is fundamentally a human experience and I was very grateful to be walking home in the sodding wind and rain afterwards. I thoroughly recommend you see this on an IMAX screen if possible to get the full benefit of the experience.