A new star child is born
Science fiction films, like any form of mainstream storytelling, typically hinge on humanity’s struggle against an antagonist, whether it’s an alien species, self conscious technology or earthbound asteroid. Powered by his ambition to deliver the most lifelike presentation of what it’s like begin in space, Alfonso Cuarón substitutes a tangible antagonist for a minimalist focus on the isolation, emptiness and natural dangers that occur within such an inhabitable space. It’s immediately clear that Cuarón’s daring enterprise is a rare breed, but this is only one of the elements that sets Gravity apart from the vast majority of others.
A complex idea is balanced by a simple narrative, which follows two astronauts who are left adrift in space after the debris of a destroyed satellite speeds through their orbit shredding their space shuttle and severing their communication with Earth.
Cuarón’s unique style, Emmanuel Lubezki’s phenomenal cinematography and the sound department’s subtlety combine expertly to provide the most authentic and encapsulating presentation of space yet. The long, uninterrupted sequences established in his previous sci-fi masterpiece Children of Men return with greater effect to draw the audience into the action, but are contrasted with intimate shots from inside spacesuits that forge a remarkable sense of claustrophobia in an infinite setting. The immaculate detail, dramatic 3D action and bold direction leaves the audience exhausted, nurturing every breath and flinching at every jump in a film that feels every bit like being in space.
In attempting such a realistic representation of space, the film is vulnerable to scrutiny from pedants who’d rather pick apart its sparse and insignificant scientific inaccuracies rather than relish what a refreshingly lifelike and extraordinary experience it is. To some, Gravity may only be a visual feast, but while it is certainly that, it offers so much more.
It’s as much a high octane thriller as it is a poignant drama about dealing with death and forgetting the past. Beneath the destruction of the space shuttle is an intelligent character study, which focuses on Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone and her fight to overcome the trauma she experienced prior to the mission. Enriched by a potent backstory, natural dialogue and the affectionate tones of Steven Price’s tender score, a poised and emotionally charged Bullock delivers her finest performance yet in a role with as much gravitas as Sigourney Weaver’s seminal Ellen Ripley.
Bullock is the unfortunately rare, strong female lead that Hollywood doesn’t often present and she dominates the film, but leaves enough room for an ever impressive George Clooney to shine through. As Matt Kowalski, the veteran astronaut leading the space mission, Clooney evokes the effortless charm that has spawned so many instantly likeable characters and provides the perfect counterpoint to Bullock’s frantic demeanour. Over the course of the ninety-minute narrative their relationship may be succinct, but it carries as much substance as any other part of the film.
In addition to a multi-layered narrative, Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonás, who together penned the script, inject a weighty thematic underpinning. One scene depicts Ryan curled in the foetal position in an airlock chamber with an oxygen pipe resembling an umbilical cord and in another she emerges from a lake, her body weakened from the weightlessness of space and unable to acclimatise to Earth’s gravity as she crawls to the shore like a prehistoric creature emerging from the primordial ooze to start a chain of evolution. In these and other ways the film explores themes of rebirth as an allegory for Ryan Stone’s fight to overcome her traumatic past and begin a new life.
Until Gravity, CGI-heavy, 3D-retrofitted blockbuster action and profound, thematically-charged drama were polarising notions, but Alfonso Cuarón blends them immaculately in his triumphant space odyssey. The result is a landmark film with the cinematic draw to entice and wow a large scale audience on release, but that also carries enough impetus to ensure it will be remembered and revisited by ardent enthusiasts for years to come.