Release: March 3rd, try 2014
Running time: 90 minutes
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Jonás and Alfonso Cuarón
Composer: Steven Price
Cast: Sandra Bullock, sick George Clooney, Ed Harris
What goes up must come down. Gravity is one of those ideas that seem bafflingly simple and yet the more you understand about it the less you might end up feeling you know. From Newton’s famous orchard bound discovery to Einstein’s reconfiguration of gravity as a warping of space/time which can even bend light, gravity has been discovered without being defined and now has been defined and in the process undiscovered, but in its most basic sense gravity is what keeps our feet on the ground.
After making the outer space ethereal coolness of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick returned to a grimy social reality of a vandalised Britain with A Clockwork Orange. Following on from his gritty masterpiece Children Of Men, Alfonso Cuarón has reversed the trajectory, taking us from a bleak dystopia out into space, orbiting the Earth as the crew of the space shuttle finish off an important mission. Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is the melancholy scientist; and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) is the intrepid Space Cowboy on his last spacewalk. When an accident sets off a chain reaction and the shuttle is struck by flying space debris, the two astronauts are left isolated – for want of a better word shipwrecked – with nothing but their own ingenuity and will to survive between them and a cold slow death.
The primary response I had to Gravity was one of visceral and immersive experience. It’s dizzying, hysterically exciting and at times difficult to breathe. After years of watching films set in space, the first twenty minutes of the film – one long outrageous shot – left me feeling that I was actually in space: a three dimensional environment in which there’s no up and down, where there’s no defining horizon (something Cuarón mentioned in the press conference as being a primary difficulty) and nothing, literally nothing at times, to hang onto. Whereas 2001: A Space Odyssey was billed as ‘the Ultimate Trip’, Gravity is ‘the Ultimate Ride’, and for once the 3D makes perfect sense. And it’s this thrilling element that is the primary attraction of the film.
But it isn’t all dumb fun. Gravity maintains two perspectives represented in bold strokes by its two leads. Stone seeks in space distraction and ultimately oblivion. Her fight for survival will require her to reconnect with a sense of the worth and value of what is for her an almost fatally damaged life. With Country and Western music piped into his helmet (a nice reference to John Carpenter’s Dark Star here), Kowalsky is a more carefree individual, embodying the atavistic pioneer spirit and the warrior poet. He sees space and the Earth as a beautiful unspoiled wilderness, a viewpoint which is rudely contradicted by the Kessler syndrome (the overcrowding of space hardware in low earth orbit with the dangers of multiple pile ups) which provides the film with its jeopardy.
The performances also hold up against the dynamic drive of events which would have overwhelmed lesser actors. Clooney is almost effortless as a real life Buzz Lightyear and his constant can-do good humour is in keeping with his cool professionalism and know how. Bullock is a revelation. Her Stone is the emotional core of the film and her back-story – which has all the possibilities of being mawkishly absurd – is made functionally convincing by the actress’ own fierce need. The film is at its weakest when it attempts a grasp towards the Tarkovskian/Kubrickian metaphysical ether. When the mid-Western native Stone laments ‘I was never told how to pray’, there’s a klang of improbability. Americans are a lot of things but irreligious isn’t one of them. Ultimately, the film’s reach is not aiming at the stars but rather is in the grip of the gravity of the title, pulling us down to more earth bound problems of continuing to live.
With Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón has created a white knuckle science fiction adventure which in a cinematic world dominated by giant toy and comic book franchises boringly destroying cities is for all its gee whiz (and they are gee whiz) special effects a very human and ultimately touching story.
John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.
He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.